Computers are for Girls
A deep dive into early home computer ads.
Quick link: Skip my boring ramblings and go straight to the gallery of 1980:s home computer ads!
Toys for Boys
In the early 1980:s, roughly coinciding (give or take a few years) with the launch of popular home computers like the Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 400 and TRS-80, the ratio of female applicants to enroll in computer science dropped drastically, at least in the US. One reason given for this is that home computers were specifically marketed as being for boys. I'm not sure where this idea originates - possibly from British computer scientist Wendy Hall ("... the marketing of computers to fathers and their sons turned women off computing ...", Hall says) - but I've seen it repeated enough times in both journalistic writing and online forum posts that it seems to have become a self-evident truth. It's on Wikipedia, too, but Wikipedia cites the aforementioned NPR article based on a Podcast episode, which is in turn based on a hunch or gut feeling one of the reporters had after watching some home computer commercials on Youtube.
In short, this explanation bothers me, because I simply don't think it holds up. Let's examine!
The Swedish Situation
I dare say it's true that home computers were mostly used by boys - at least in Sweden, when I was a geeky kid in the late eighties and early nineties.
This is interesting, because I think Sweden at this point in time is a useful control group. Compared to the current state of affairs, US cultural influence here was much weaker in the early eighties, when many home computers were initially launched. When the C64 arrived in Sweden in 1983, there were two TV channels, both controlled by the government and with no advertising whatsoever. Advertising aimed at children (below 12) and youths (below 16) was (and still is, to some extent) heavily regulated. In fact, some of the most popular comic books and youth magazines at this time, such as Bamse and Kamratposten, made a point of not running ads at all. Those that did typically limited it to two or three pages per issue and it was mostly ads for traditional toys or candy. Yet, home computing was still mostly a nerdy boys' club.
The Contemporary Situation
To the best of my knowledge, computers and computing devices have now, for well over a decade and a half, been thrust into the hands of both girls and boys from a very early age. Contemporary tech advertising targets pretty much anyone who can breathe, and various campaigns have been launched specifically for increasing womens' interest in computer science. Looking at data presented in this article from Berkeley School of Information, we can see that while the proportional drop of female CS graduates did coincide with the advent of personal computers, it hasn't bounced back, either. Eighties computer ads must really have been some strong stuff if they're still affecting kids who grew up with iPhones glued to their hands.
When home computers were launched, it seems even the manufacturers didn't quite know what to make of them. Of course everybody knew they were for games, but what else were they good for? Plenty of use cases, some more contrived than others, were made up: Keep track of your recipes, give yourself an edge in school work, do your home accounts and write nice letters to grandma.
Some products have been and are still marketed exclusively at either boys or girls, but I'm of the firm conviction that home computers aren't one of them. It's true that there were ads for home computers clearly directed at boys - but there were also plenty directed at girls, families and of course at nobody in particular - that is to say, at everyone.
But what do I have to show for it? Maybe I'm also in the pocket of Big Home Computing, trying to cover up a scandal they'd rather forget? Let's take a stroll down print ad lane and look at a few examples.
I haven't played Facemaker, but I'm sure this young girl was paid handsomely to look this happy about it. Remember kids, if your parents want you to play a computer game, it's probably educational. (The good news is that your parents probably don't know squat about computers; just slip a copy of Space Invaders into the disk cover, nobody will know!)
Your Match in Smugness
I'm afraid there's no ambiguity here; this software is clearly educational and should be avoided at all costs. Aren't computers supposed to be fun?
Beep bEeEp beEEp BOOP
Yeah, this family is smiling now, but after a few more hours of the kids "composing" on a cheap sawtooth generator I'm sure the feelings will be more mixed.
Run Away Already!
Look at how happy they are, having been conned into thinking they're playing games when they're actually studying. The fools!
I mean, I know it's educational in some way but that's some pretty damn cool graphics programming, worthy of the demo scene. For once, the astounded faces don't seem out of place.
Solo Lire 1,290,000
Yes, for the small sum of 1.3 million lire, you can be as successful as this Italian businesswoman. But then again we all know that Atari delivers power - without the price.
Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh
I'm not going to write anything silly here, because this is an interesting ad. It's practically begging girls to attend Atari's computer camps: surely not something you'd do if you wanted to market your product solely at boys.
This ad really hits hard in the nostalgia department. It captures the essence of getting lost in the magical world of your home computer: Exploring, discovering, forgetting about the dull minutiae of real life for just a little while. Ah, to be young again, and so on.
Even a cheap Apple II knock-off will make your family at least 36% happier!
- Where have you been?
- What did you do?
Yes, it's true. Home computers will keep your kids off drugs and away from shoplifting and other petty crime. Except software piracy. There's going to be a lot of that.
They look sort of... boring, don't they? I bet it's more of that educational software. Run away kids, run away!
Games for Girls
This girl's game looks suspiciously like a boy's game. Perhaps because they were the same.
The first thing you do on Christmas morning is of course to hook up your awesome new home computer and start writing BASIC. Look at how the father is desperately proffering some other gift, but his daughter isn't having any of it. She knows it's probably educational software. Stay strong, kiddo, you'll be coding triangles too if you keep this up!
It's not RAM!
Admit it, with a setup like this, you'd have a smile like that on your face, too. A ten megabyte hard drive? A 12" monitor? A 28-Amp power supply? The future is already here!
Computer Viruses or Cooties?
This Swedish ad from the early 1990:s is poking fun at stereotypes: Forget make-up, fashion, horses and pink bows. The Amiga is a machine powerful enough for even the geekiest of girls. It's so simple to use, even silly boys can do it.
The vast majority of computer ads I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot!) looks something like this. A photo of the computer in question, perhaps some peripherals, and a text describing how great it is and how much software you can run on it. Not a boy, girl, woman, man or dog in sight.
What about television commercials, then? Just as with print ads, there were those aimed just at boys - and just as with print ads, there were plenty aimed at girls, women and families. A few examples:
Hey, this girl is ALREADY PUBLISHING A NEWSPAPER (on her Apple II) (Yes, it's that Andrea Barber.)
This average American homemaker uses her Apple II for keeping track of... gold futures? (It helps her managing her steel mill.)
Microsoft's legendary commercial for Windows/386 from the late 1980:s, featuring a rapping business woman schooling the stuffy old mainframe geezer on concepts like memory management, virtualization and multi-tasking.
Why, then, did computer science see a downturn in the proportion of female applicants during the home computer boom? Why was home computing such a boys' club? I don't know, really. But, even though I have a strong aversion against advertising in general, I'm (clearly) not convinced it is to be blamed in this particular instance. In fact, many of the examples given above hint at a kind of quiet desperation from vendors missing out on a market segment comprising half of the population.
Is my research method any different than that of the NPR journalist mentioned above? Probably not, but that's part of the point. It's not hard to find home computer ads like these - unless you're willingly doing shoddy journalism, for whatever reason. Just type "home computer advertisement" into your search engine of choice and see for yourself. Consider this an attempt to balance the narrative.
This page contains a curated selection of ads, but they're certainly not outliers. There are plenty more advertisements and commercials targeting families, women and girls, from all the major computer brands of the time. At least according to the manufacturers, home computers were clearly for girls.