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Getting WAY Too Excited About Computers: Open-Mouthed Wonderment in 80s Tech Adverts

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vintage electronics advertisement

Look at these people.  Judging by the levels of shock-and-awe, you’d think this man just turned water to wine.  Was cancer cured?  Did he make contact with extraterrestrial life?  Nope.  He hooked up a motherboard to a train and phone… and even the milkman is soiling himself over it.

Suffice it to say, tech advertising in the late 70s and 80s tended to exaggerate the capabilities of their products.  Computer and video game adverts regularly featured Caucasians in states of orgiastic wonderment over seemingly average technologies.  Granted, there was genuine cause for amazement amid the computer revolution – but, as you’ll see in these advertisements, it went a bit overboard…

vintage electronics advertisement

Weekly Reader Family Software (Creative Computing, Sept. 1983)

Speaking as someone who had an Atari and VIC-20 in the early 1980s, I can confidently say – neither my family, nor anyone I knew, ever – EVER – experienced such rabid open-mouthed “togetherness” over their video game system.

And what exactly are they looking at that would simultaneously cause the boy in yellow to look afraid for his life, for mom to appear positively enamored, and dad to make a hand gesture that will get you killed in Brazil?

PLATO educational software (1983)

PLATO educational software (1983)

Textbooks are for losers – pixelated CGA software from a floppy disk makes learning a religious experience.  It’s as if they just opened the Ark of the Covenant (let’s hope their faces don’t melt).

Radio Shack Answers catalog (1985)

Radio Shack Answers catalog (1985)

Check out the girl – it’s like Beatlemania… but over a crap basketball game.  The dad seems pleased with himself, but deep down he wonders where he’ll find the money to pay for this thing.  This Tandy cost $1199 USD in 1983 – that’s $2877 adjusted for inflation!

American People Link (1985)

American People Link (1985)

For only $2.95 an hour, “an exciting and inexpensive way to meet new friends”.  Am I the only one who finds it hilarious that the guy appears to be in a state of arousal?  Let’s give him some privacy and move on to the next one….

(Left) Creative Computing magazine - Jan. 1985, (Right) Intellivision - 1982

(Left) Creative Computing magazine – Jan. 1985, (Right) Intellivision – 1982

Yes, the level of excitement, wonderment, and general hysterics of electronics consumers was off the charts in the 1980s.  It was only a matter of time before the populace realized these new gadgets didn’t quite live up to the as-advertised hysteria.  By the 90s, the irrational apoplexy had toned down to a more reasonable level.

vintage electronics advertisement

This is just classic.  The dad is positively jubilant, and mom is beaming with existential joy… while the daughter just wants them the hell out of her room.

Sinclair User magazine (June 1984)

Sinclair User magazine (June 1984)

This kid: “The MicroNet 800?… Oh My Freaking God!!”

Crash magazine (Aug. 1985)

Crash magazine (Aug. 1985)

As if fishing weren’t boring enough, let’s remove its few redeemable qualities such as the fresh air and outdoor experience, and turn it into a lame video game.  Sure, it sounds mind-numbingly dull,  but we’ll feature a family in a state of rapturous togetherness in our advertising, and people will line up to buy it – guaranteed.

Radio Shack Computer Catalog (1990)

Radio Shack Computer Catalog (1990)

Yet another Caucasian family happier than a whore in a cucumber patch (as they say).

(Left) Computer Gazette - June 1989, (Right) Compute! - Dec. 1989

(Left) Compute!’s Gazette – June 1989, (Right) Compute! – Dec. 1989

Let it not be said that advertisers were the only ones peddling the Cult of Electronic Euphoria; magazines of the time were just as guilty of setting up false expectations.

vintage electronics advertisement

But let’s not be too critical of the over-the-top marketing.  It’s the job of advertisers to make it seem like their products are the answer to all your dreams.  Certainly, mobile phone and video game consoles still do this today.  Perhaps they aren’t as blatant and inherently cheesy as these 1980s adverts, but I’m sure we’ll look back with similar jocularity at their adorable tendency to over-hype and over-promise.

atari vintage advertisement

  • Fred Johansen

    The last period in human existence when there was true freedom.

  • timdub70

    The Micronet 800….with a high-speed 300 baud modem!

    • Yeoman Lowbrow

      A whopping 300 bits per second…. and Google Fiber is clocking in at 1 gigabit (1,000,000,000 bits) per second!

    • Freakanatcha

      Makes me wonder what kind of perv prowls the universe looking for young boys via the Micronet 800.
      My quess is a very nerdy perv.

  • Steve Mills

    It sure was great when everything could have rainbow colors and not be associated with gays.

  • Andi

    Haha! The Laser 128 was my family’s first computer. I loved that thing, but I doubt that I reacted quite so enthusiastically to it! 🙂

  • sleat

    This is like somebody asking “Gee, why were people so excited when WWII ended, I don’t get it?”

    Some people really did get that excited, but not all at the same time, not as well dressed or groomed, and the lighting wasn’t that good. And some of them would have had cigarettes in their mouths.
    Mainly we got excited when it all worked properly.

    If you could connect your KIM-1 to a model train-set in 1979 and make it do something, you were probably either making good money, or going to be making good money soon. That’s worth a smile.

    People got pretty excited over the first Color TV in the neighborhood, too.

    • Yeoman Lowbrow

      Fair enough. You could’ve taken a picture of me with my brand new VIC-20 or my Atari 2600, and I would’ve looked just as gobsmacked as these people. In fact, I’ll be publishing a post soon on the similar delirious joy of housewives over their new refrigerators in the early 1950s. It’s easy to point and laugh – but the fact is, these were technological marvels worthy of much joy. So, I’m not saying “I don’t get it”; I’m just finding humor in advertising’s masterful ability to hype up consumer excitement. Cheers.

      • sleat

        I enjoyed the article, and thanks for your candour. I can clearly remember that even in the 80’s, we thought the ads were amusingly hyped, and occasionally made fun of them. I’m sure you did, too.

        “Wow, it even dyed mom’s hair AND trimmed dad’s moustache!” and “I wonder what’s under the table giving them all such goofy expressions?”

        These from my cynical pal who only had a 2600 and came over perhaps solely to play with my VIC (and later 64).

        You’re quite right, these were technological marvels that brought stuff you might only have access to at work or uni (or not at all) right into the living room.

  • Kelsey McLeod

    Lot’s of families did things together before the technology revolution (or at least that was the commonly held ideal). I think that is a major reason these advertisers felt the need to show technology in a family context. It was frickin’ expensive, too, so the idea was that these things would be like the family TV – enjoyed by all. It’s kind of sad when you think about how extremely individualized technology has evolved to create very isolated little lives, even at home when you are with your loved ones. Now I’m sad.

  • What relation is that Capitol sports sweat pants and shirt outfit to that kid, I don’t trust any of these people in these images. Especially Jack!

  • twaitsfan1 .

    Woah woah woah – crap basketball game? I wiled away many an hour with One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird