The 18 most cringe-adorable TV commercials from technology's awkward years
You once had an awkward stage. You dressed horribly, your hair was an embarrassing approximation of something you saw on TV, and you showed poor judgment in just about everything you did.
Consumer technology has also endured more than a few uncomfortable moments. Between the late 1970s and 2000, tech graduated from science fiction to real-world products affecting the lives of everyday people. Personal computers, mobile phones, and primitive forays onto the World Wide Webbernets all became things.
But the transition wasn’t always smooth. Just as our awkward stages remain enshrined in high school yearbooks and family videos, technology’s weird years—as documented in the television ads of the time—have been YouTube-preserved forever. Observe.
When introducing 1970s America to the relatively new concept of a home gaming console, Atari decided that its television ads should feature two of the most unimpeachable celebrity figures of the time: Pete Rose and Don Knotts. The combination of Charlie Hustle and Mr. Furley provided just the right amount of magic to catapult the Atari 2600 to unit sales of 30 million.
A side note: The minimalist Atari baseball game featured in the commercial may appear primitive and bizarre to modern eyes, but it’s actually a fairly accurate depiction of how the game was played during this colorful era.
Sony Betamax (1979)
Sony’s Betamax standard would ultimately lose the videotape format wars to JVC’s VHS. This heart-tugging 1979 commercial, however, clearly showcases the medium’s promise of not having to interact with your elderly relatives in person.
RCA Selectavision VHS (1979)
Let’s just take note of how far we’ve come: Four blank VHS tapes offering 14 hours of recording time were at one point worth “nearly $100” (or roughly $311 in 2013 money). Zen on that.
Sony Walkman (1980s)
The Sony Walkman cannily anticipated the mobile age that would follow two decades later. Here’s a Japanese commercial featuring a monkey wearing a Walkman and staring into the distance while contemplating the future of humankind. The Walkman would go on to sell more than 220 million units. I’m sure this commercial had nothing to do with that.
RCA Video Disc Player (1980)
Around the same time as laser discs, there was a short-lived competing video disc format: Capacitance Electronic Discs. CED transmitted video content by way of analog vinyl discs—sort of like LP records with video-playback capability. It’s a tragedy this format never took off. Imagine house parties in the South Bronx with a DJ mixing and scratching both audio and video samples.
Intellivision Home Gaming System (1982)
Long before “stranger danger” was a concept, television commercials encouraged young children to approach strange grown men on the street and accept video games from them. Here’s an early example of that more innocent time that—surreally—features George Plimpton, editor of the literary journal the Paris Review. Apparently, young gamers of the day were more in tune with contemporary literary culture than today’s bunch.
Apple IIc (1984)
Although Apple’s first portable computer didn’t come standard with a monitor or mouse, it did have the capability to run “over 10,000 programs.” The original price (sans monitor and mouse) was $1300, which would be a little more than $2800 in 2013 money.
As a point of comparison, you can pick up a top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display for around $2600. Perhaps a more apt comparison, though, is the Mac mini—you can grab a top-shelf version for $800.
We have two things to note here. First, Tarzan is referred to as “the original swinger.” (Just thought we’d isolate that.) Second, the Star Trek game promises the ability “to fight aliens at the speed of light.” First of all, Mr. ColecoVision, the Starship Enterprise was on a five-year mission of research and exploration, not of wagin’ war and tusslin’ with aliens. And furthermore, the Enterprise clearly had the ability to travel far beyond the speed of light. That’s why your silly game console never took off.
Commodore 64 (1985)
In the 1980s, the best way to get people to pay attention to your product was to hit them over the head with a catchy theme song that loops forever in their brains (check!) and to have lots of smiling people pointing at the audience (and check!).
AT&T Personal Computer (1985)
Lost in the fog of tech history is the brief period when AT&T tried its hand at making personal computers. This boxy, Unix-based system was known as the 3B1, and according to the commercial, it came standard with “the future built in.”
Out of curiosity, I called the 800 number featured at the end of the commercial, and a recording offered me a free two-night Bahamas cruise vacation as long as I set aside some time to hear a sales pitch about time-share rentals. Not a bad deal if you think about it. Thanks, AT&T!
The Legend of Zelda (1986)
This early NES ad features two precocious youngsters from opposite ends of the suburban spectrum: nerd and cool dude. Surprisingly, the two archetypes manage to set aside their differences and join together to spit out a few raps about their favorite game, The Legend of Zelda. It makes me hopeful to think that if these two can come together, then maybe there’s a chance for the rest of us.
Pioneer 6-Disc CD player (1986)
This commercial touting a six-disc stereo from Pioneer is an example of the ad industry’s brief flirtation with video art (those of a certain age surely remember those aggressively weird Calvin Klein Obsession cologne commercials).
Pioneer attempted to move into the surreal-message-marketing game with this ad that begins with a sextet of water nymphs magically rising from a swimming pool in the desert southwest. The women attempt to entice a young man with the ability to listen to six CDs in one sitting. They are successful.
The six vixens then become one, and the man and the water angel dance on the surface of the pool. Why? Does it even matter? You can play six CDs at a time now.
First cell phone ad (1989)
According to the YouTube poster’s description, this is the first televised cell phone ad. It features a man in a Jeep using his gigantic phone to call his family to explain that he will be late because he has accidentally driven into a herd of sheep. This was apparently a common predicament for consumers in the 1980s.
By 1990, the online service Prodigy already boasted hundreds of thousands of users exploring the early dial-up Web. Although it is no longer an entity stateside, the Prodigy brand lives on south of the border as part of the Mexican telecommunications company Telmex. Prodigy Internet is the main Telmex ISP, with an estimated 92 percent of the market.
Radio Shack mobile phone (1990)
As the ’90s dawned, mobile phones were leaving our cars and shrinking from the size of a suitcase to that of a mere gallon of milk. Here we have an ad for a Radio Shack phone, which closes with a young Bill Gates wannabe demonstrating the new tool’s utility.
The digital scourge of Clinton-era America smothered the nation in floppy discs and CDs, promising ever more hours of time online. According to America Online officials, the company spent $300 million on producing all those CDs, which—not accounting for inflation—is equal to the 2008 GDP of the entire nation of Micronesia. If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider that at one point 50 percent of all CDs produced were emblazoned with the AOL logo.
Also, notice that TechHive’s sister sites—PCWorld and Macworld—were pimped in this 1995 commercial as well.
Fairly or unfairly, Pets.com became the symbol of the Web 1.0 bubble burst. The company spent nearly all of its initial investments on marketing rather than on building a sustainable business plan. The commercials for Pets.com were so ubiquitous that the company spokesperson, a dog-shaped sock puppet (voiced by comedian Michael Ian Black), became a minor celebrity who made appearances on Good Morning America and Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, and was even transformed into a balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Bonus: The Net (1995)
Edward Snowden surely took much of his inspiration from this Sandra Bullock vehicle.
Correction: An earlier version of this feature stated that Capacitance Electronic Disc were on the market before LaserDiscs. In fact, LaserDiscs were first introduced in limited release in 1978, while CEDs were not available at retail until 1981. The text has been updated to reflect this.