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Selling the Internet, 1990s style

In the 1990s, online services were just beginning to market themselves to consumers, and nobody knew what to say about them. In retrospect, some of the advertising for these online brands was downright strange. Take a look at these vintage ads and see how far we’ve come.

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Here’s a very early ad for Prodigy—July 1991. It looks a little dated, but read the copy. I’m actually impressed by how contemporary this ad sounds.

Since few people were online at that time, Prodigy was basically worthless for talking to friends and family. But that didn’t stop them from making a social pitch: You could use Prodigy to connect with people who share similar interests. That’s something people do online all the time today. (You’re doing it right now.)

The service was pitched as something versatile and fun, with games, an encyclopedia, bill payment, and other things that we still use the Internet for today. The appeal to women here is pretty shallow—”My wife’s favorite is the food club where she shares recipes and tips.”—and everything in that photo is way out of fashion, but otherwise it’s not too embarrassing. Even the tagline, “You gotta get this thing,” is a fun way to acknowledge that the service is hard to explain, but you’ll like it anyway.

Prodigy ad

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Then along came the Internet. In this April 1995 ad, a national dial-up ISP called Delphi tries to convince customers to “Explore the Internet!”

Today this jargon-filled ad makes no sense whatsoever. What, exactly, does a customer get out of gaining access to Hytelnet? People who liked to tinker with computers found this stuff amazing, but there wasn’t any compelling reason for anybody else to try it.

Delphi 1990s Internet Ad

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Here’s an April 1995 ad for a scrappy new company called America Online. With its “Internet Connection” portal, America Online was one of the first big online services to offer access to the Internet, sending a wave of clueless consumers flooding into message boards that had been otherwise been a playground for techies. Some people still hold a grudge.

This ad reminds me how low the expectations were for an online service in 1995. Back then, “9600 baud modem access” met the definition of “fast and easy.” And it was considered a benefit that you could surf without worrying about “message counts, block counts or surcharges.”

American Online 1995 Print Ad

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Finally, here’s a brand that failed to see the future. By October 1997, CompuServe was trying to find a niche as a premium, business-oriented service, advertising itself as “The online service for those who already have a social life.”

The ad is pretty good at articulating CompuServe’s benefits: It’s fast and convenient. But they got one thing terribly wrong. Users would eventually come to find online social communication enjoyable and fun. They didn’t just use the Internet to conduct business with brisk efficiency, they wanted to live their social lives online as well.

CompuServe Ad 1990s

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(All of these examples were found in the magazine archive on Google Books.)

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Advertising, Technology

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