Web one-point-uh-oh: Looking back at 1990s Internet ads on TV

Before Facebook, free porn, and adorable cats talking in IM-speak took over the Internet, the Web was an untamed frontier full of mystery and wonder. As the nation embarked into the digital unknown in the late '80s and '90s, we were greeted with a bevy of companies who were going to help us experience everything this new HTTP landscape had to offer.

So what did that look like? A lot of wild promises, for one. Some companies presented the Web as a portal where information would literally burst from of your computer screen and fly around your living room. Others just translated old ideas to a new medium, with quirky results.

Let's take a little stroll back through the wild west-like years of the early Internet, and ask "Where are they now?" with some of Web 1.0's biggest players.

1. Prodigy (1990)

When this ad first broadcast in 1990, Prodigy boasted "hundreds of thousands" of users who you could connect with while enjoying "hundreds of applications." For a nation that was culturally located at the exact midpoint between War Games and The Matrix, that was pretty damn impressive.

The Best Part

The ballsy tag line at the end: "Finally, What The PC Was Invented For"

Where Are They Now?

Through a complicated series of acquisitions and buyouts, Prodigy's US business became a property of what is now AT&T where it is no longer supported. A visit to Prodigy.com will simply redirect you to AT&T, though Prodigy still lives on today as the number one ISP in Mexico under the umbrella of Latin American telecom giant Telmex. Prodigy Internet de Telmex holds an estimated 92% of the Mexican Internet market and is also that country's leader in Wi-Fi and DSL access. ¡Viva la Prodigy!

2. CompuServe (1991)

CompuServe was the first major commercial online service in the US. The company was actually founded in 1969 to give in-house computer processing support for a life insurance company. H&R Block acquired CompuServe in 1980 to help build their tax processing capabilities. Later in the decade, CompuServe shifted their attention to the consumer market and became one of the most popular portals into "the Internet," a place where, as you can see, magical creatures fly out from your computer to delight and inform you. Watch out.

The Best Part

The Encyclopedia-sized manuals that come with the membership package at the :49 mark.

Where Are They Now?

Like Prodigy, CompuServe went through a maze of acquisitions and rebrandings over the last decade. It is now an unsupported property of AOL. CompuServe finally shut down its U.S. offices in 2007 followed shortly by its European branches. Today, a visit to Compuserve.com will forward you to a slimmed down version of another relic AOL property, Netscape.

3. AOL (1995)

America Online didn't take over Clinton-era America as much as the company smothered it. It was nearly impossible to avoid the deluge of CDs that were mailed to everyone and their uncle and found their way into the insert section of just about every magazine and newspaper in the country, and the company also blanketed the airwaves with commercials for its service. Here's an early ad for AOL that played up middle America's deep-seeded desire to avoid an afternoon with their family.

The Best Part

"Of course there's my personal favorite: live chat. That's how I met my new kayaking buddies" at the :36 mark. Just adorable.

Where Are They Now?

At one time, AOL was the most important company in the world. The brand became ubiquitous enough that it inspired an insipid romantic comedy about email, after all. Unfortunately, the company failed to keep up with competing high speed ISPs that gained popularity at the turn of the millennium. Today, the company has been spun off from its much ballyhooed acquisition of Time Warner and has been rebranded as "Aol." (period included). The company is still the email of choice for baby boomers the world over (dad still has his original address), but has retooled itself as a content provider and holds various Web properties including TechCrunch and MapQuest.

4. The Net trailer (1995)

Of course, the Internet wasn't all reading about dinosaurs and making plane reservations. This isn't an ad for a particular service, but a trailer for the film The Net, featuring a young Sandra Bullock fighting against cyber spies (or something — I've honestly never sat all the way through that one). But the trailer does offer a glimpse into the psyche of a society bracing itself for the new wired frontier.

The Best Part

Every cliché you should avoid when making a movie trailer.

Where Are They Now?

Dennis Miller had a string of failed shows, but always seems to manage yet another chance. Sandra Bullock was awarded an Oscar for sheer tenacity. And as for Internet, The Net portrays a world where our very identities could be stolen and our private information misused for nefarious purposes. Good thing those fears are a relic of the past that we no longer have to worry about.

5. David Cross AOL ad (1995)

AOL gets two ads here because they deserve it — in the 1990s, there was nobody bigger. For much of the country, AOL was the embodiment of the Internet. They were so huge they were even able to coax anti-establishment David Cross into a commercial that probably paid his rent for the rest of the decade.

The Best Part

I'm gonna bet David Cross' AOL screen name was not "CONDORS1" Just to confirm, I actually sent an email to condors1@aol.com and asked if it was David Cross' email. Got an undeliverable message back. Alas.

Where Are They Now?

For AOL (sorry "Aol."), see above. David went onto various projects in film and TV. He spends much of his time as a genuinely hilarious comedian railing against everything indicative of corporate-designated middle class America. But even he's not above taking a check from The Man every so often. Good for him.

6. Comedy Central's first website ad (1996)

Remember when Penn Jillette used to be the voice of Comedy Central? Here, the magic world's own hurly burley man touts that channel's first foray onto the webosphere.

The Best Part

Apparently in 1996, http://comcentral.com could get away with calling itself the Web's "only all-comedy website." I guess back then the closest competing comedy portal was Hamsterdance.com.

Where Are They Now?

Today, Comcentral.com forwards you to that channel's contemporary domain: www.comedycentral.com. Penn Jillette is no longer the voice for Comedy Central, but still performs regularly while pursuing a side passion touting libertarian politics.

7. Pets.com ad (1999)

As that decade of promise drew to a close, Pets.com would become the poster child for the colossal tech bubble pop. Here's an ad featuring that site's plucky puppy hand puppet keying people in on the importance of buying pet food on the Internet.

The Best Part

Listen closely, the voice of the puppet: comedian Michael Ian Black. Also, those cats at the :11 mark aren't even eating anything, they're just staring at cans. They probably had to shoot this scene several times while those cats sat there not getting fed. In retrospect, Pets.com might have actually failed because they were jerks.

Where Are They Now?

RIP, Pets.com (1998-2000). We hardly knew ye. Today, logging into Pets.com will forward you to myPetSmart.com.

The company's failure was all the more infamous because of the ubiquitous ads that made their puppet spokesman a celebrity in his own right. The puppet was interviewed by People magazine, made appearances on Good Morning America and Live with Regis and Kathy Lee, and was even turned into a giant balloon for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. America was in love with the Pets.com puppet! Even after Pets.com folded, the puppet was still a popular branded name, and went on to shoot other ads for other companies.

So, there you go, a look back at the information age in its infancy. A time where the digital doings we take for granted were all shiny and new. I just hope in 20 years we'll look back with as much fondness for our obsessions over celebrity tweets and our growing collection of insanely laborious memes.

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