I recently stumbled across a series of Atari advertisements featuring actor Alan Alda. I have a soft spot for Alan Alda, partially because of his feminist politics, and partially because of a deep love for the series MASH — which Alda agreed to star in only after gaining assurance that surgery scenes would feature in every episode. Alda was worried the show would become too much of a sitcom and move away from showing the horrors and absurdity of war.
The advertisements Alda did for Atari certainly draw on his MASH-related celebrity, but they also draw on his feminist politics. Alda appears in the ads as both a familiar face and an advocate for girls in computing.
In the ad embedded above, Alda introduces the audience to Stacy, a young girl who is teaching herself touch typing using an Atari computer, and a game called “Typo Attack.” A second advertisement, in which a teenaged girl uses an Atari word processing program, plays more directly with Alda’s known investment in gender equality. The girl types, “All men are created equal,” then says that it seems out of date before updating the phrase to “All men and women are created equal.”
I enjoy these ads for the ways in which they play with gender politics to sell home computers. But, they’re also an artifact of a rather specific moment in video game history. Prior to the crash of 1983-1985, Atari had controlled 80% of the U.S. video game market. Atari’s flailing had in many ways set off the crash, and the company’s efforts to regain a toehold in the market resulted in efforts at diversification into other consumer electronics sectors, including computers and telephones. Atari was not alone in these efforts, as several other companies had attempted to enter into the home computing market. These ads, most of which ran in 1984, provide an interesting glimpse at the ways Atari tried to rise from its ashes.