The 1980s were a crazy time. We elected a former B-movie actor to defend the free world, replaced Coke with a new version only to change our minds shortly thereafter, and found entertainment in the hijinks of a fuzzy brown puppet alien.
It was also a time when computers and other formerly high-end electronics started to gain a foothold as standard household products. Of course, the promise of a Buck Rogers future world didn't quite live up to the hype — but don't tell that to the electronics marketing teams of the day. We've assembled the top gadget commercials from the 1980s* complete with all the adorable naiveté, synthesizer music, and graphic effects that decade of cheesy excess could muster. Enjoy!
*For the point of this post, we're defining "the 80s," as the era between 1977 and 1990. Note: you won't be seeing that groundbreaking Ridley Scott-directed Apple commercial from 1984 as we're scoring on the basis of unintended irony, timeliness and overall 1980s awesomeness.
15. Casio Keyboard CZ-101 (1986)
While this commercial may seem somewhat over the top by today's standards, it's emblematic of the confidence of an era where people truly believed anything was achievable. Back then, it just wasn't completely outside the realm of possibility that a musical instrument could literally launch you into space or that a "cool" dude like this might conceivably make a living as a rock star — if only he had the right keyboard.
14. The IBM 5100 Portable Computer (1977)
Looking for a mobile magical box to tell you how to run your small business' finances? Well, the IBM 5100 portable computer may be the solution for you! The 5100 boasts all the power of an early graphing calculator crammed into the size of a doublewide suitcase and weighs in at only slightly more than the average six-year-old. But don't take my word for it; check out around 1:29 when the manager of a printing press raves about how digital technology is going to completely revolutionize his industry. (Oh, poor soul!)
13. Atari Home Gaming System (1978)
Atari: the one video system so good it was endorsed by Pete Rose, one of professional baseball's most trusted athletes. This ad also features Don Knotts portraying a prisoner in an ode to the colored-bar based video game Breakout. At the end, Knotts "breaks out" of his prison and then, I assume, commits a bunch of crimes like the ones that got him locked up in the first place. If you think about it, Grand Theft Auto owes a lot to Breakout.
12. Six Disk Pioneer CD Player (1986)
For their new stereo device, Pioneer created an ad campaign that was as forward-thinking as their multi-disc technology. Here we find what appears to be the head jock from Revenge of the Nerds after consuming what must have been a whole lot of peyote out in a New Mexico desert. In the foreground, six magical platinum-haired water nymphs rise from a public pool, each showing off a compact disc before evaporating into nothingness and then magically recombining into The One, à la Highlander. At the end of this psychedelic series of events, the newly formed couple celebrates their new CD changer by literally dancing on top of the pool. Nice job, Pioneer.
11. SelectaVision VHS Player (1979)
Greetings, people of 30 years ago. Did any of you miss the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas? Too bad you didn't have a VCR. Now you'll never find out who did it. (It was the shark from Jaws. Think I'm lying? Well, you weren't able to tape it, so you'll never know.)
The time to jump on the SelectaVision train is now! For a limited time, when you buy a quality SelectaVision VHS player, you'll get four blank cassette tapes, which apparently cost $100 back in your day. You'd be nuts to turn down a financial incentive like that. But on that note and while I have your attention, I'd strongly recommend that you acquire the trademarks for the words "twitter," "flickr," and "google." I know they must sound like a random assortment of made-up and/or misspelled nonsense words, but you're just going to have to trust me this.
10. AT&T Personal Computer (1985)
Did you know that AT&T wasn't always just a supplier of dependable and beloved 3G coverage? It's true. The AT&T ye olden times used to make personal computers that came — standardized — with "the future built in." Ones that you would, theoretically, be able to adapt as new features came to market, even far into the amazing futuristic Jetsons year 1989.
9. RCA Video Disc Player (1981)
Video on demand, schmideo on schmemand. While the rest of the world is gearing up for web-enabled TV, I think we should reserve a place for these massive, unwieldy discs and their players. Why store your movie collection in the cloud when you could fill your den with your library of large LP-sized discs. Most full-length movies only require you to turn them over two or three times — four times, max. Well, unless it's a really long movie or a director's cut or something, then, I won't lie to you, it may be more.
8. Sony Cassette Walkman (1985)
I really like the idea of rocking out to the newest Bryan Adams album during calisthenics class, but it can be such a hassle to carry around a turntable and portable generator. There has got to be a better way! Thankfully, the good people at Sony have created a mobile cassette player that is diminutive enough that it will only impede your movement about a quarter of the time.
7. The Apple IIc (1984)
Nearly 20 years ago, the "Apple wizards" introduced the world to the Apple IIc. Revel in remarkable 1 MHz computational power showcased via a breathtaking green and black interface, which you can access with a mouse that's only 150% the size of the average adult's closed fist. The whole package comes available for a mere $1,300 ($2,800 in 2010 money). An unbelievable bargain for a device that has the capacity to run the full suite of first generation Beagle Bros software and all the pure gaming muscle of Zork.
6. Intellivision Home Gaming System (1982)
Once upon a time, George "founder of The Paris Review" Plimpton was the spokesman for Mattel's Intellivision video game system. The whole "thinking man's crude home video gaming system" would eventually prove a fruitless pursuit as the system was discontinued in 1991, never to return. Most of the commercials compared the superiority of Intellivision's games to rival Atari. But here's an odd variation featuring an encounter between George and a young boy that seems dangerously close into transforming into a PSA about "stranger danger."
5. Sony Betamax (1979)
Remember Betamax? What strange branding. It even has the word "beta" in it. That means second to the alpha — to the max. It was just begging to fall short to the VHS. Here, Betamax sells itself as a home movie studio to entertain grandma with. It promises you a world where you don't have to visit her in person anymore because she has a kooky family TV tape to watch. And that's how the disintegration of the American family began. Thanks for that, Sony. I, for one, am glad your home-wrecking, second-rate videocassette recorder failed to take off.
4. ColecoVision (1984)
There are several problems with this ColecoVision commercial. One: they say their video game adaptation of the film War Games becomes "more than just a game." Did they actually see the movie? Matthew Broderick was happy playing Thermo Nuclear War until it turned out to be much more than a game and the world almost perished in a nuclear apocalypse. What exactly is ColecoVision selling?
Two: they refer to Tarzan as "the original swinger," which does make sense on one level, but I imagine it had to inspire at least a few uncomfortable family dinner conversations. And three: they say that their adaptation of Star Trek will allow you to fight aliens "at the speed of light." First off, the Federation starship USS Enterprise is on an egalitarian duty of enlightenment. They're not on some alien-tussling mission. Also, as everyone knows, the Enterprise is capable of traveling at warp drive, which is faster than the speed of light. See, that's why you lost the first round of console wars, ColecoVision — you were boldly ignorant of the facts.
3. Commodore Home Computer (1985)
(Caution: This clip features a horrible jingle that is unbelievably successful at getting stuck in your head. You've been warned.) Are you keeping up with the Commodore? I hope somebody is, because this steady parade of mid-'80s sitcom extras pointing at me is making me uncomfortable. Why is everyone pointing at me? I just wanted a computer with a basic color interface. At the most, maybe learn some facts about Jupiter or play a little Frogger. I really didn't want to interact with all you weirdos.
2. The Legend of Zelda (1986)
The Legend of Zelda didn't just offer a magical world of birds-eye-view adventure; it had the power to bring teenage archetypes from opposite ends of the suburban social spectrum together. There's even a rap song to celebrate the bonding of nerd and skateboarder. How kumbaya. (Side note: my favorite YouTube comment for this clip comes from user ZanderShocker: "they need to get laid................BIG TIME!" Indeed.)
1. Radio Shack Cell Phone (1990)
RadioShack isn't just your go-to source for watch batteries and RCA cords, it's are also a leading dealer in the groundbreaking world of cellular technology. Have you heard about "cell phones" yet? They work just like an actual phone booth, but are available at half of the size. They're mobile enough to bring in a car or on a boat, but still large enough that it can sit next to you at a table at a fancy restaurant so you don't have to feel so very alone. I see big things in the future for RadioShack-branded cell phones.