Hype Sheet: Buy This Computer or You're the Worst Parent Ever

The Pitch Time for a little holiday nostalgia this week, as Hype Sheet goes digging through the crates for this 1983 Texas Instruments gem—a textbook example of preying on parental fears. A blond, bowl-cutted moppet sits on daddy's lap, toying with an educational program on the family's snazzy TI-99/4A. "A Texas Instruments home computer can give him a real head start," intones the honey-voiced narrator, as Junior successfully identifies a pixilated rabbit. At the end, however, the message turns more ominous: "Don't put it off!"—the unspoken end of that sentence being, "...or your kid will be DUMB!" America, however, wouldn't be cowed by scare tactics: TI was forced to close its home-computer division that same year. Was the home of the integrated circuit just a victim of bad timing? Or did it botch its marketing strategy? The Spin Just a few years prior to the TI-99/4A's 1981 debut, TI scored a major consumer-electronics hit with the Speak & Spell. The company's brand was thus closely identified with education applications, an advantage that it tried to press with cloying ads such as this one. TI really can't be faulted for this, as its competitors were similarly convinced that computers would become family machines—thus IBM's drive to release the disastrous PCjr. And since the computer had been dubbed "Machine of the Year" by Time in 1982, it made sense to try and tap into parental paranoia. Those of us who remember Logo lessons and CompuKids were swept up in the madness, told that we might as well resign ourselves to ditch-digging futures if we didn't learn BASIC ASAP. Except, uh, in this commercial the kid ain't even learning to write a three-line script; he's learning the letter R.

Counterspin The conventional wisdom on the TI-99/4A's failure is that it was a victim of a price war. But I'd claim that the family angle was wrong to begin with, since the limits of 1980s educational software are pretty obvious: is learning the letter R on a screen really that much different from learning it from a book? On top of that, the most important part of any budding geek's education is unfettered exploration, not convening with dad for supervised computing. (This was the era before the ubiquitous Internet, so Junior was a lot less likely to get cruised by online weirdos.) Okay, granted, three years old is a little young to figure out much. But even for older kids, there wasn't enough to do with the TI-99/4A, owing primarily to the dearth of software—a great lesson in why proprietary technology schemes can backfire. (Sony? Are you listening?)

Mission Accomplished? Obviously not, since it was only a few months after this commercial's debut that TI announced the end of its home-computer division. (The company made laptops for a while, though its line was eventually sold to Acer.) Thus began the era of the PC clone, when computing really came to the masses. (The era of the Mac, of course, was also about to dawn.) Perhaps TI could have staved that off a bit by presenting the TI-99/4A as more than a glorified Speak & Spell, but its problems ran deeper than mere marketing buffoonery. The company went wrong by locking users in to proprietary software, and by thinking that consumers cared more about brands than ease-of-use. Good thing TI had that whole semiconductor business to fall back on.

Hype-O-Meter 2.5 (out of 10). A failure in terms of selling units, of course, but there's something sweetly innocent here, too. I mean, c'mon, check out that slogan: "Creating useful services and products for you." We've come a long way.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired, a columnist for Slate, and author of the forthcoming Now the Hell Will Start. His Hype Sheet column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

(Thanks to milwaukeetvmadman for posting the video.)