How Apple and IBM Marketed the First Personal Computers

In 1977, companies building PCs had to try to convince the American public that this confusing new technology was missing from their lives.

Apple / IBM / The Atlantic

As ubiquitous as they might be now, in the 1970s, few things were more mysterious and unknown than the “personal computer.” For years, these shadowy, ever-shrinking machines had been touted as the next revolution in the American home, although few people had a sense of how they might actually work. In April 1977, that changed with the launch of the Apple II, one of the first affordable, mass-produced PCs in history. Here was a machine small enough to fit in the home and intuitive enough to use without a programming degree. Still, the advertising challenge—how to convince people to shell out for a product no home had ever needed before—was daunting. The best answer was the simplest one: Make it seem like they've always been there.


Apple ads offered straightforward, striking imagery, emphasizing clarity rather than elaborate claims on behalf of its wares—an approach it maintains to this day. In this full-page spread, a husband and wife enjoy their normal daily routine in the kitchen, with the husband tapping away on his Apple II. Forget the numerous wires and cables that would be tangling up the floor, or the limited household applications of such a device. This was the first time a computer could look seamless in the home, and that was what Apple, and each of its competitors, wanted.

Today, Apple makes a habit of stripping its advertising of everything but the most essential details to let the product speak for itself. In 1977, there was still much that needed explaining. The Apple II “home” ad came with a facing page describing, in detail, all of its technical specs and practical programs. Here was a machine that could teach your children spelling and arithmetic, “paint” dazzling displays using color graphics, and balance your checkbook. And unlike any machine before it, the Apple II wasn't a “kit”—a computer the customer had to assemble herself from purchased parts. Here was a machine you could set up in moments, even if the ad’s opening lines might sound like a daunting amount of work to the iPhone generation: “Clear the kitchen table. Bring in the color TV. Plug in your new Apple II, and connect any standard cassette recorder. Now you're ready for an evening of discovery.”

The idea of clearing off the kitchen table had strangely recurred in the computer market for years prior. At the start of the ‘70s, Honeywell marketed an item called the “Kitchen Computer,” a desk-sized recipe book that would supposedly make the housewife’s job easier. This regressive piece of advertising marked a curious landmark (published in the Neiman Marcus catalog, it was the first piece of personal-computer marketing in history), but the Kitchen Computer (retailing for $10,000) was essentially vaporware—a product that was announced, but never made. You would have needed to take a programming course to even figure out how to use the thing, and none were ever sold, but Honeywell was making a primitive effort at trying to understand how its product could figure into everyday lives of Americans.


When Byte Magazine witnessed the Apple II in action before its launch, the publisher Carl Helmers wrote that it might be the first official “appliance computer”—a computer you could buy off the shelf, bring home, and plug in without much fuss. While PCs largely remained a luxury item, his prediction proved correct. Roughly 48,000 personal computers were sold worldwide in 1977; more than triple that amount shipped the next year. Companies rushed to an old trick: recruiting celebrities to endorse their products—the beloved science-fiction author Isaac Asimov became the face of Radio Shack, while Bill Cosby dubbed Texas Instruments’ Home Computer “the one” to buy. But while every home computer ad bragged about technical specs and affordability in big blocks of text, Apple more quickly understood that it was selling a way of life. This was something also grasped by its biggest competitor: IBM, the first giant in the American computer industry.

IBM didn’t officially enter the “personal” market until 1981, when it jump-started sales with the introduction of its much-copied IBM PC. But in the late ‘70s, it made the same strides toward emphasis on small size and ease of use, advertising its IBM 5100 (a predecessor to the PC) as the “first portable computer.” A 1977 TV commercial featured a real-estate manager, a farmer, and an insurance salesman, all of whom praised the machine as offering major relief on the job, and how easily it sat on a desk. “It weighs about 50 pounds,” the voice-over brags. If you still didn’t get the picture, a magazine ad made it simpler, with an image of someone holding it in his hands, as if carrying a box of files.

It would, in fact, take another generation before the home computer became much more than a hobbyist’s toy. Apple and IBM would lead the revolution, but not before the market weathered a 1983 video game bust that turned the public against buying such fancy toys. When prices came down, and programs became more practical, the idea of an Apple on the kitchen table became less and less fanciful. Apple’s innovations in the advertising sphere never lost their boldness, but through today the core aim remains the same: convincing the consumer that there’s a practical application for its latest high-end product. Just watch the TV advertisements for the Apple Watch, derided by some tech critics as useless and inconvenient. Out and about? Exercising? Planning meetings at work? Talking to friends? Taking a picture? The watch is always seamlessly involved. Selling technology can’t only hinge on bragging about specs. Now, as it was in 1977, it’s about convincing the consumers that there’s a computer-sized hole in their lives that they never noticed before.