Retro Commercials: One Company Dared To Compete With IBM And Macintosh Computers In 1984

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John Cleese explains how a Compaq portable computer is better than a dead fish in this mid-1980s commercial.

It seems only a short time ago when the famous series of "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" commercials were ping-ponging consumers around and vying for their devotion. Though these battles have now morphed into Google vs. Bing or iPhone vs. Android, the battleground of technology advertising is littered with outdated computers and dead companies from years past.

In fact, if we take a little tour in computer history, we'll find that 1984 -- a year made ominous because of George Orwell's novel -- was the year that the conflict between personal computer makers was waged heavily through television commercials. That's because IBM was the gold standard for business and serious computer power, the more personal Macintosh was introduced (with its infamous commercial), and Commodore was pushing low-cost accessible computing to the masses.

Still, one company that decided to go head-to-head with IBM for the business market was Compaq. The Houston-based company began in 1982 by three former Texas Instruments managers and set out to compete directly with Big Blue using a now common refrain of "the same, but faster." Because Compaq was waging a technology race against a company that had solid branding, it needed a trick up its sleeve.

That trick turned out to be John Cleese of Monty Python fame.

Compaq created a series of humorous ads for both the UK and US with quite different approaches to sell their desktop and portable computers. In the UK, where Cleese was known from appearing in numerous TV series along with appearing in some films, Compaq could use him as a pitch man ripe with British wit, whereas in the US commercials, Cleese performed as a more slapsticky everyman. Both were brilliant.

Here for your viewing pleasure are just four of the many British commercials from that critical year:

These are the American versions that are taking jabs at Compaq's competitors:

Thanks in part to these ads, Compaq took 6 percent of the market share in 1984, which increased to 9 percent the following year. As the Chicago Tribune noted in 1986, "Compaq, still only about a quarter the size of Apple in terms of revenues, didn't just have a good year, it had a phenomenal one." It's market share would rise to 16.7 percent in 1989 before it would begin a slow slide.

The company was bought by Hewlett-Packard in 2002 and has since slowly receded into the night.

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 7 Responses

  • digi_owl October 11, 2012 on 11:21 am

    32 bits of a bus indeed 😀

  • MarcusAurelius October 11, 2012 on 10:43 pm

    Seriously? If anyone needs to be admired for going up against IBM and Apple, then its Commodore. Its technology was cutting edge, and its seminal contribution to computing was its graphical powerhouse aptly named Amiga back in 1985. It was a showstopper, with its 3d capabilities and full stereo sound. A real multimedia enthusiasts dream and wasn’t surpassed until a full decade later when PCs finally began integrating stereo sound and dropping the PC speaker as default! But I digress, the Amiga home computer has never been given its proper credit. And with a base of less than 50 million units sold worldwide (over 15 years) it never truly made the necessary market footprint needed to cement its presence worldwide.

    • Jeremy Morgan MarcusAurelius October 18, 2012 on 8:48 pm

      The Amiga was light years ahead of it’s time, and few people talk about it. I was actually messing with one about 10 years ago and was still amazed by what it did at the time..

  • Ron Johnson October 15, 2012 on 4:19 pm

    The anti-Mac ad was *genius*.

    • everyguy Ron Johnson October 21, 2012 on 8:07 pm

      They nailed the Mac demographic before it even existed!

  • Christopher Gosnell October 19, 2012 on 9:17 am

    I had really hoped that when Compaq bought DEC that DEC alphas would become more mainstream, or that Atarti’s Transputer would have taken off. Machines before their time.

  • gszakacs October 22, 2012 on 6:17 am

    It’s interesting that we think of Compaq as just another IBM clone (PC) when in fact they took the lead from IBM pretty much after the PC-AT. Compaq defined the mainstream PC architecture starting with the Intel 386 processor.