Technological Ignorance is Bliss: How Computers were advertised in the mid 20th Century
The heart of the 20th century was a time where tremendous advancements were taking place, especially within the realm of technology. During this era technological companies began to refine their products and widely advertise them to the general public. One of the most prevalent technological machines of the mid 20th century was the computer, a device featured in various forms with various functionalities.
However, because the gadgets were so innovative not many people knew what to expect from them. Companies realized this and decided to heavily publicize the products, providing information to consumers. It is interesting to investigate how companies used advertisements to educate consumers and how the general public perceived the newly introduced variations of the computer.
Looking at a variety of computer advertisements throughout the 1950s and 1960s I observed common techniques used by different companies. The first thing to notice is that computer advertisements of the period were not directed toward the individual for personal usages as they are today. The computer was a tool primarily used in business applications, particularly in the field of engineering.
The advertisements caught the attention of business owners after claiming computers could drastically help cut costs. Additionally, the advertisements stated computers could make laborer’s jobs easier by providing solutions to complex problems. These types of advertisements were specifically geared toward engineering firms because engineers were frequently bogged down with complex mathematics. The computer’s brain could solve these complex problems much faster than could the human counterpart.1
This ability allowed engineers to spend more time on creative issues, dramatically increasing productivity. The advertisements ensured that firms could resolve more intricate problems in a shorter time by utilizing computers. However, if the machines could not produce reliable results then it really did not matter how fast the apparatus yielded the answer. Luckily for the consumer, the machines were reliable and this aspect was heavily stressed in advertisements, easing the nerves of the potential buyers.1
Although computers were valuable in the field of engineering, they also were utilized in other industries. Advertisements displayed the array of applications computers possessed through different programs. Computers were portrayed as being able to aid in employee selection, language translation, inventory control, and calculate payroll.1
These tasks required long hours to complete manually. Having a machine that could do this freed up a large portion of time, something attractive to any business owner.
The advertisements told consumers what the computers could do, but people were still reluctant to buy the machines and were slightly intimidated by their complexities. To remedy this widespread fear, companies emphasized the computer’s ease of use and convenience.1 Further measures were taken to ensure clients that the devices did in fact increase productivity and lower costs.
For instance, throughout the 1960s NCR published statements from companies that used their devices. In these advertisements, primarily for the 315 and 390 computers, the companies described how easy the devices were to use and how much money the machine saved them.1 This tactic is still widely used today and is undeniably an effective sales strategy.
Up to this point the computer’s applications were strictly business related. But, in the mid 1960s computers were outfitted with capabilities outside of the business world. According to one 1963 advertisement for the Minivac 601, computers were described to consumers as interactive devices that could play tic-tac-toe, compose poetry, and even tell your fortune.2
These advertisements told the consumer a lot about the products, but did not explain how the devices worked. This is probably for the better because had the companies provided explanatory information, the consumer would have likely been lost in the technical gobbledygook. Nevertheless, in an attempt to explain how the products worked, companies like NCR, IBM, Burroughs, and Donner compared the bowels of a computer to the human brain.1 This did not fully explain how computers worked, but the consumer could at least visualize the similarities between synapses in the brain and the circuitry of a computer.
Even with little clarification, most advertisements still featured a great deal of text, something different from what we see in magazines today.1 Marketing strategies of today utilize the less is more approach, providing more visual stimulation. But, in the 1960s, when computers were new, more text was needed to provide ample information to consumers.
In the mid 20th century, computers intrigued the minds of many and even began cropping up in the plots of popular fiction.
In the 1970 film, Colossus: The Forbin Project, two military supercomputers, belonging to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., insisted on being linked together. The computers then threatened the world with nuclear weapons if they were to be disconnected. The computer then began to give its’ plans for the management of the world under its' guidance.3
This idea of a human-like computer controlling the world was science fiction then, but human-like computers could become a reality in our lifetimes. Computers were portrayed as very powerful and almost mysterious devices to the people of this time period. It is interesting to see how computers were advertised early on in their development and how they were depicted in popular fiction of the time. Advertisements and popular fiction may not have fully explained how computers worked, but they were still effective in turning the computer into a pivotal piece of our culture.