By Benj Edwards
When personal computers entered the mainstream in the 1980s, the American public was understandably uneasy. Most people didn't know much about using a PC, or how to choose a good one. Where could they turn for advice? Marketers hoped they would turn to on-screen role models, heroes such as Alan Alda, Roger Moore, and William Shatner. Understandable, perhaps. But really, would you buy a computer on the advice of Dom DeLuise or wrestler "King Kong" Bundy?
Some celebrities (such as John Cleese for Compaq) pitched solely to television audiences, while others graced the printed page. In this slide show, we take a lighthearted look at eleven examples of the latter, most taken straight from vintage computer magazines of the 1980s.
Dom DeLuise and the NCR PC4 (1984)
The NCR PC4 is a computer that's "compatible with people," according to the ad. That is, it's compatible with doctors, accountants, and construction workers who look exactly like Dom DeLuise (and presumably are cashing a big check from NCR). Most people who didn't look like Dom DeLuise found that they weren't so compatible with this PC, which saw a quick death.
Roger Moore and the Spectravideo SV-318 (1983)
Normally, James Bond would settle for nothing less than a diamond-encrusted, gold-plated, missile-launching personal computation device--high class and higher body count. But we all know that Roger Moore's rendition of Bond didn't quite match the character in Ian Fleming's novels. And the SV-318--an obscure, rubber-Chiclet-keyed footnote to computer history--will never be confused with something from Q's lab.
Instead, this computer's biggest claim to fame comes from supposedly being the accidental progenitor of the MSX computing standard that made a big splash in Japan.
William Shatner and the Commodore VIC-20 (1982)
Am I only the one who thinks of William Shatner sitting in front of a Commodore VIC-20 saying, "MUST ... HAVE ... MORE ... RAM!!!"?
Shatner's TV ads for the "Wonder Computer of the 1980s" were about as cheesy as the Commodore's graphics--and I'm not talking hip, self-referential cheesy, just cheesy.
I wonder if Shatner's Commodore gig had anything to do with that Commodore PET in Star Trek II. If they still use those in 2285, the future isn't as bright as I'd hoped.
Isaac Asimov and the Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer (1982)
Though you can never be sure whether celebrities actually use the things they endorse, that wasn't an issue with Isaac Asimov's ads for the TRS-80. The science fiction master bought one of Radio Shack's classic PCs in 1981 and was delighted with it, according to "Isaac Asimov: A Life of the Grand Master of Science Fiction" by Michael White.
"He had always complained that electric typewriters moved too slowly for his brain. With this new computer he decided that it was just fast enough to keep up with him," White writes.
"King Kong" Bundy and the Vendex HeadStart (1987)
Have you ever wondered, "What kind of computer is good enough for 'King Kong' Bundy?" Neither have I. But this was perhaps the perfect computer for the Atlantic City Annihilator to endorse, since its name sounds a lot like the handles given to some wrestling moves. Would you rather be hit with a Vendex HeadStart or an Avalanche Suplex? Tough call.
Sadly, in 1987 the universe of World Wrestling Federation-loving computer geeks was apparently too small to support a line of PCs for long. Sales of the Vendex sagged as badly as Bundy's man boobs, and references to the line seem to die out about 1989.
Alan Alda and the Atari 800XL (1984)
These days, technology wars are usually fought over specs and features. But in the 1980s, celebrity endorsements were the weapons of choice. As evidence, check out this quote from coverage of Atari's announcement that it had hired "MASH"'s surgical cutup: "The arrangement with Alda is expected to more than match the celebrity-spokesman impact achieved by competing computer companies."
Alda's impact was of the soft variety, though. In one television commercial, he helps a young girl use Atari's word processing software to promote feminism. In another, he's lounging in a bathrobe and slippers while extolling his new best friend, the Atari XL, to the dismay of his loyal dog.
We named the earlier Atari 800 one of the greatest PCs of all time. The 800XL was reportedly Atari's best-selling PC, but the company's computer line became a casualty of the PC price war of the mid-'80s.
'MASH' Cast and the IBM PS/2 (1987)
IBM didn't have Alda for this ad, so they compensated by jamming just about every other member of the 'MASH' cast into the picture.
The gang also did television commercials for the doomed IBM system, showing the characters bizarrely transported from an Army hospital in Korea to a generic American office building where they apparently all inexplicably decided to continue working together. In one, Radar bubbles excitedly about the PS/2's ability to put "256 colors on the screen at once!"
Eventually, Alda's love of Atari PCs proved fickle. He showed up in another of the 'MASH'-characters-as-cubicle-drones ads for IBM's machines.
Bill Bixby and the Radio Shack Tandy 2000 (1983)
By the time Radio Shack changed from the TRS-80 computer moniker to the less "trashy" Tandy name, it had already given poor Isaac Asimov the boot in favor of TV's Bill Bixby.
Bixby had an oddly schizophrenic public image. On one hand, he was the mild-mannered, compassionate dad from "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." In "The Incredible Hulk" though, he was Dr. Bruce Banner, the man with perhaps the worst anger-management problem ever. This ad seems to be going for an "Eddie's Father" vibe, though who knows what would have happened if the Tandy had thrown up its version of the Blue Screen of Death.
Sarah Purcell and the Tomy Tutor (1983)
If you don't remember Sarah Purcell (and who could blame you), you can think of her as the proto-Kathie Lee Gifford. Purcell cohosted a live morning show in Los Angeles with the ubiquitous Regis Philbin. She also worked on "Real People," a proto-reality show in which she interviewed people like Macale Merton, a 51-year-old bare-knuckles fighter who yearned to fight for the middleweight championship.
Her endorsement of the Tomy Tutor was as quixotic as Merton's campaign. Even the one Web tribute to this cross between a toy and a computer refers to it as "The Little Orphan."
Bill Cosby and the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (1982)
Jell-O, Coke, Ford automobiles--America trusted Bill Cosby's opinion on lots of other products, so why not a computer?
Of course, you have to wonder whether Cosby ever actually owned a TI-99/4A, which we declared one of the worst PCs of all time. Did he ever balance his checkbook with Household Budget Management or play Alpiner? Did he curse the terrible TI-99/4A joysticks and throw them against the wall when he lost? Does he still have one sitting in his attic, or did he sell it in a yard sale in 1989 along with a model of the Notre Dame constructed with Pudding Pop sticks? Perhaps only Clair Huxtable knows for sure.
Bill Gates and the Radio Shack Tandy 2000 (1984)
Product endorsement ads like this one weren't unusual for Microsoft's chief honcho back in the early 1980s. Of course, those were the days before Microsoft was insanely huge, rich, and unstoppable.
"When we set out to design MS-Windows in color," Gates says in the ad, "we knew that the Tandy 2000 computer would let us turn an extraordinary product into a work of art." Um ... right.