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

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now morphed into Google vs. Bing or iPhone vs. Android, the battleground of technology advertising is littered with outdated computers and dead companies from years past.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 started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.

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