The Golden Age of IBM Advertising

Back in May, we told you about some industrial films that IBM commissioned from the Muppets in the 1960s. The decade before that, the office-equipment giant was a major advertiser in glossy mass-circulation magazines such as LIFE.Today, those ads are a fascinating, evocative trip back to a world in which technology, work, and workplaces were radically different. Yes, there was a time when the typical piece of business correspondence was a snail-mail letter typed by a secretary on a typewriter which might or might not have been electric-and which had no provision for correcting errors.

(Click to enlarge any images that follow)

Back in the 1950s, IBM was just getting into the computer business, many companies still needed to be convinced that electric typewriters weren't a technological boondoggle, and slide rules were still essential equipment. And the American workplace-at least as depicted in magazine ads-had what we'd now consider a distinct Mad Men edge to it.

Mix yourself the cocktail of your choice, settle into your Eames chair, and return with us now to the era of mainframes and secretarial pools to rediscover these vintage IBM ads fromLIFE and other publications.

February 1950
In the pre-transistor world of 1950, vacuum tubes were still exciting, futuristic technology. IBM hadn't quite started selling general-purpose computers yet; the gadgetry shown in this ad included calculators and time clocks.

The company liked to show atomic imagery in its ads in the 1950s-it, too, was exciting and futuristic.

June 1951
I don't think IBM expected anyone who saw an ad like this inLIFE to rush out and buy an Electronic Calculator. It just wanted to burnish its image as a leading maker of super-sophisticated scientific equipment-one that had already sold thousands of Electronic Business Machines.

December 1951

Here we have a hundred and fifty engineers-all white guys with receding hairlines-somberly contemplating their slide rules and confronting the fact that the IBM Electronic Calculator threatens to put them out of work.

The woman who showed off the calculator in the previous ad has been replaced by a man; from here on out, the females in 1950s IBM ads would be secretaries.

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