Since its introduction in 1977 the home computer has revolutionised life both at home and at the office in ways that could not have been fathomed prior to its creation. It has evolved from an unwieldy, inefficient and often impractical device into a sleek, intuitive and portable appliance of which many homes and offices around the world can no longer run as effectively in its absence. As it has evolved and developed in a physical sense, the way in which it has been advertised and marketed to the masses over the years since its creation has been similarly radical. In order to see this change and also how representations of home computing have changed in computer advertising since the early 1980s it is essential to look at how computer advertising was characterised in the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s and how these periods were different from one another in their approach.
Computer advertisements in the 1980s in a general sense were based around providing the consumer with as much information as possible regarding a relatively new and unfamiliar technology in order to sell the user on what a home computer could do to revolutionise life both at home and in the office. Ads were heavy in text and specifications and frequently used imagination stoking imagery and techniques to allay public fears of the alleged complexity of the technology. Computer manufacturer, Atari was particularly known for its use of enticing imagery and promising users “A world beyond your wildest dreams”. Their ability to romanticise a product that was often far more frustrating than productive or useful was renowned and even the company’s earliest ads had a quality that the competition couldn’t even come close to fathoming. In terms of the actual character of advertisements from this period, print ads generally consisted of text-laden documents often recruiting the help of celebrities and notable historical figures to further assert their message. Apple ads in particular used such historical icons as Benjamin Franklin in their print ads (Figure 1) and later popular talk show host Dick Cavett on screen to provide a familiar medium through which to reach the products targeted audience.
While 1980s home computer advertisement centred on informing the consumer about how owning a computer could enrich their home and office life advertising in the 1990s shifted to a new approach. The introduction of the Pentium P5 processor brought an overall faster and more efficient product and opened the door for endless possibilities in high definition games, digital photography as well as multitasking with the Windows 3.1 operating system. Now that the basic hardware and structure of that hardware had been established, advertising shifted to what software and programs could do for an individual and how it could enhance one’s home computing experience. In essence, advertising became less about specifications and product centred technical information and more about new and exciting ways in which it could be used. Print ads became less about text-heavy information laden sheets about what the product could do and more about stylish imagery and short taglines (Figure 2). Staples of 1980s ads such as their use of historical figures evolved into a more sustained use of celebrities to market their products. Apple’s popular “Think Different” campaign was testament to this. In addition to this 1990s computer advertising began to showcase rivalry between computer manufacturers Apple and IBM far more extensively as seen in such instances as Apple’s infamous ‘1984’ campaign, an event marking a turning point in the way in which home computers were marketed.
By the dawn of the 21st century most major improvement regarding home computer technology had already been made. The technology was established and familiar and a large quantity of the target market were well aware of the advantages of owning a home computer. One could argue at this stage, perhaps that personal computer technology had become so ingrained in society that the initial marketing strategies employed in the 1980s had essentially become obsolete. By this point in time advertising began targeting the more portable version of technology in the laptop and spent less time marketing its desktop counterpart with a few notable exceptions including Apple’s iMac. Apple and other PC advertisements in general had become noticeably more artistic (Figure 3) in their approach and began to focus on showcasing the product for what it was physically rather than the form of text laden specifications seen earlier in the 1980s and to some degree in the 1990s. As a result of this product marketing began to move away from print advertisements and began almost exclusively focusing on television advertisement. By this time the technology had become self-sufficient and essentially marketed itself which left innovation and stylistic development as the only area to be taken advantage of when advertising a company’s products.
From heavy text laden fact sheets about how a computer could provide a better life for the whole family in 1980, more colourful ads imploring the consumer to invest in the latest software and hardware upgrades in the 1990s to the stylistic flair showcased in artistic television commercials in the 2000s, it is clear that advertising of the product has developed not only in its physical appearance but also in its targeted audience and purpose. As a result it is valid to say that representations of home computing in computer advertising have significantly changed since the 1980s and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise that this will not continue into the future.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
Ditlea, Steve, “An Apple on Every Desk,” Inc., October (1981)
Freiberger, Paul, Swaine, Michael, Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000
Hoover, Elizabeth, “The Birth of Apple”, American Heritage, April 1, (2006)
Maney, Kevin, “Apple’s ’1984′ Super Bowl Commercial Still Stands as Watershed Event”, USA Today, January 28,(2004).
Rheingold, H., Tools for thought: the history and future of mind-expanding technology , Massachussets: Cambridge, 2000
Richter, Paul, “IBM Moves to Dominate the Personal Computer Market”, Los Angeles Times, January 31, (1982).
Roy A. Allan A, History of the Personal Computer, New York: Alan Publishing, 2001
Steinghilper, Ulrich, Don’t Talk- Do It! From Flying To Word Processing. London: Manchester University Press, 2006.
Williams, Jake, “Striking it Rich: America’s Risk Takers and The Seeds of Success,” Time, February 15, (1982).