Smith & Alexander [ Fumbling the Future (1988) ] Here is a three-part trivia question about televised personal computer advertising: Name the companies responsible for

  1. The longest playing series of personal computer commercials?
  2. The most creative single commercial?
  3. The first personal computer commercial?

xeroxAnswering part one is easy. IBM’s “Charlie Chaplin” ads ran for more than six years. They were entertaining, effective, and nearly impossible to avoid. Identifying Apple as the maker of the most creative commercial may be more challenging. Apple showed the ad just once, during the second half of the 1984 Super Bowl. Nonetheless, some people consider it the most impressive corporate identity commercial in history. Now for the last piece of the puzzle. Who televised the first personal computer commercial? This is not a trick question. It wasn’t IBM, and it wasn’t Apple.

It was Xerox.

Xerox is not a name most personal computer consumers, let alone general television audiences, associate with the multibillion dollar personal computing industry. Fifteen years after it invented the world’s first personal computing system, and long after it portrayed that system in a 1979 commercial, Xerox still means “copy” to most people. Had it succeeded in marketing the computers shown in the commercial, however, Xerox might have meant more than copiers—much more.

Unlike Xerox, IBM, of course, always has been synonymous with computers. By far the most dominant personal computer advertising promotes the IBM PC. In it, a contemporary actor Plays Charlie Chaplin playing his renowned tramp. The little man with derby, moustache, baggy trousers, and awkward walk twitters and jerks his way through the delightful discovery that computers can be useful and even fun for real people. IBM has spent massively on the campaign, as much to build interest in personal computing itself as to identify IBM’s product as the standard in the industry.

In contrast to the IBM barrage, the memorable Apple commercial was more like a proclamation. Less than a decade after being incorporated in the garage workshop of two kids in their twenties, Apple Computer stood out as the Fortune 500 corporation best positioned to challenge IBM’s dominance in personal computing. The brash, young California company selected 1984 and the Super Bowl to broadcast its commercial, a video morality play celebrating the glory of iconoclastic individualism and condemning the sinister threat of organizations whose power oppresses rather than liberates the human spirit. Using imagery without words, Apple drew the battle line clearly between itself and IBM.

By 1984, the year George Orwell predicted would witness a tyranny of computers in the hands of evil men, Apple Computer, like the personal computing industry at large, held out the opposite promise. Apple marked the event with its Super Bowl commercial. The ad begins with several indistinguishable cohorts of gray-clad ideological slaves marching in lockstep toward a great hall. Once inside, they take instruction from a larger-than-life image projected on a screen at the head of the auditorium. In the midst of this lifeless, impersonal scene, a powerfully built woman, dressed in bright colors and wielding a sledgehammer, charges into the hall and spins herself around and around and around, frightening the brainwashed masses. With each of her revolutions, the tension grows in the great hall until, finally, at the end of the piece, she launches her weapon directly at the big screen.

The commercial’s imagery richly conveyed Apple’s perspective on its history, computers, and IBM. Perhaps more subtly, the television time purchased told as much about Apple the corporation. Super Bowl minutes are the most expensive advertising time in the world. Apple may have had an anti-establishment past, but its economic power in 1984 was as conventional and formidable as the beer, car, and financial services companies who also sponsored the annual football championship. The Super Bowl spot marked Apple’s arrival; it was only the second company in history to have reached a billion dollars in sales in less than ten years on the merits of a new technology.

The first was Xerox. Less than a decade after the 1959 introduction of its revolutionary office copier, Xerox went over the billion dollar mark and claimed a position, along with IBM, as one of America’s leading office products companies. By 1970, competition between the two giants seemed inevitable as each rushed into the technology of the other—IBM into copiers, and Xerox into computers.

But in 1979, despite airing the spot several times, Xerox decided against marketing the Alto system. By then the organization barely resembled the buoyant company that a decade earlier had challenged both IBM and the office of the future. External factors including fierce competition, government antagonism, and economic recession all marked Xerox’s slide—from overconfidence to loss of confidence. Internal forces were even more combustible, as the company’s research, finance, and marketing groups each pursued a separate vision of the “right” Xerox future. In the end, the company that invented the first version of a personal computing future found itself struggling to recapture the advantages of its copier past.

But why? Why do corporations find it so difficult to replicate earlier successes in new and unrelated fields? How could Xerox, sired by one radical technology, bring forth yet another extraordinary invention, only to fumble away most of the economic opportunity it promised?



2 thoughts on “What It Takes

  • 03/02/2016 at 21:01

    In case you were wondering what today’s big players are going to look like in 20 years

    • 03/02/2016 at 21:03

      Meanwhile, that 1984 ‘mercial is just going to be sexy forever.


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