Changing Representations Of The Home Computer In Home Computer Advertising Since The 1980s

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.

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Figure 1, Apple Computer Advertisement, 1980. Image taken from: http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/09/the-evolution-of-apple-ads/

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.

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Figure 2, Apple Computer Advertisement, 1992. Image taken from: http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/09/the-evolution-of-apple-ads/

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.

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Figure 3, Apple Computer Advertisement, 2001. Image taken from: http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/09/the-evolution-of-apple-ads/

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).

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6 comments on “Changing Representations Of The Home Computer In Home Computer Advertising Since The 1980s

  1. carolynewmq says:

    Hi Luke, this is such an interesting topic. I’ve seen the shift in the types of home computers getting slimmer and faster etc but I had never before considered the subsequent change in the way they were advertised.

  2. hughcrundwell says:

    This is honestly such a great topic! I wish I had thought of it! I would love to read your final essay and see the sources you used.

    I think whats most interesting is the fact that its not even really about the home computer anymore, so in a way we could argue that representations die as technology does, but then again we could argue they change as technology does. I strongly agree with your statement regarding the importance on the computer, we are heavily reliant now but these representations seemed to have changed to emphasise that we NEED to own computers, which I think is so interesting, I guess the technological revolution of the 80s is the cause of that!

    Well done on such a unique topic!

  3. Thank you, it really is an interesting topic and I really enjoyed putting together both my essay and this post! I think one of the most interesting points I discovered in writing my essay was that the more advanced the technology became the less it needed to be marketed and advertised based on its specifications alone. As stated most major breakthroughs in the technology had been made by the 2000s and anything after this was essentially just making the product smaller and slimmer. This meant that as it advanced, advertising in a way became less and less important in marketing the product. It has become so established and ingrained in society that its initial marketing strategies are now more or less obsolete. I found this quite ironic but incredibly fascinating all the same.

  4. Hey Luke, awesome topic, I actually am just starting a career in advertising, love technology and obviously history. Advertising for technology will always be such an interesting issue to look at historically and where it’s heading. The issue of advertising and developing hardware alone is becoming so obsolete, there’s a documentary I saw recently that showed Playstation’s are actually sold below the cost of production in order for Sony to lock people into their other products they offer through it such as blu-ray and programs on Playstations. Did you happen look into the development of advertising theory and technology and how that also would’ve impacted the way computers were advertised? There are a few agencies and people in particular that i can’t remember the names of unfortunately who have made massive contributions to theories in branding which have developed advertising from “convincing” people to buy products as those wordy posters did, to changing people perceptions of what it means to own an apple, sony, dell computer etc. by developing brands into personalities and “ways of life”.

  5. Fascinating topic. As someone born in 1990, it’s hard for me to remember a time where computers weren’t an everyday household item. It is interesting in the sense that you trace the early origins and reception of Home computers, as well as the shift in emphasis. The computer in the 80’s was seen purely as an upgraded typewriter, whereas in the 1990’s it became a more all encompassing multi-media experience, for entertainment and work. This has continued on to this day, as video-gaming is now a pop culture phenomenon. Where do you see it going next or do you see another phase around the corner?

  6. emilymatthews2 says:

    I remember, just over a decade ago, I would sit at the home computer – its large screen monitor heavier than me, the computer engine running, its fan spinning relentlessly as to not overheat. I would ask my dad to connect me to the internet – for what purpose I cannot remember – but there we would check to see if there was no one on the phone line, and there the dial tone would be begin. We waited for what felt like forever. The all-too familiar sound, the fingers crossed in the hope it would work after all this time.

    And now I sit here, with my laptop in my lap, fitting perfectly in my handbag, the internet easily accessable at many hotspot destinatations – its usefulness in my life is beyond a help. Internet banking, facebook, submitting assignments, even watching my favourite TV series online.
    The blog you submitted makes me consider how much time has changed things! How life in 2014, and beyond, will be shaped and dictated by the things that are now in our laps and our phones… It makes me wonder, is this a good thing?

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