Background: The TRS-80 Micro Computer was one of the early personal computers, introduced in August of 1977 by the parent company of RadioShack, the Tandy Corporation. The development of the computer aimed to build a home computer that was both user-friendly and marketable to the general public. When the TRS-80 was first released, it was sold with “a BASIC language interpreter, four kilobytes of RAM, a Zilog Z80 processor at 1.77 megahertz, a twelve-inch video monitor, a cassette recorder, a power supply, and a cassette tape containing the games Blackjack and Backgammon” (National Museum of American History). Furthermore, various software packages were developed specifically TRS-80; for instance, Electric Pencil was a popular and user-friendly word processor, which allowed for the process of editing, formatting, and typing to be simplified and accessible for educational purposes. Another example came in early video games developed for the TRS-80. A popular game category was known as text adventures, simple games that were interactive pieces of worldbuilding and fiction. One such game built for the TRS-80 was Mystery Fun House (commands listed below); the user explores a mystery house and types in basic action commands (e.g. “Get trampoline).
The TRS-80’s versatility and accessibility (as a product sold in RadioShack stores) also allowed it to be used for educational purposes; for instance, schools could install software that allowed students to easily learn skills such as computer literacy, mathematics, science, and typing.
Introduction: The advertisement that I chose to analyze does not, at first, appear to be an advertisement at all. It is the 1981 Superman comic “Victory by Computer,” released as a part of the Radio Shack Superman giveaway comic. However, only a few pages in, readers will quickly realize that the comic is essentially one extended advertisement for the TRS-80 Computer. The chosen medium to convey this advertisement reveals two key and interconnected facets of how the TRS-80 Computer was marketed: as an exciting, new superhero, and as a kid-friendly, empowering, and educational tool.
Before delving into specific comic panels, we may first turn to other advertisements of the TRS-80 to conduct a preliminary comparison of the marketing strategies between this magazine ad and the Superman comic:
Again, we see keywords such as “important” and “useful,” but also “most important” and “exciting”; this advertisement provides an example of how the TRS-80 was characterized as revolutionary—not only to the tech industry, but to the general public.
On pages 6 and 7 of the comic, Superman and Supergirl give what reads as almost a sales pitch for the computer:
The comic relies on Superman’s reputation as a celebrated, invincible character to convey just how exciting and new this product is. Another interesting aspect of this comic is the asterisked dialogue; as I will include later in this post, the comic ends with a glossary of computer terms. The comic, then, aims to both excite and educate.
Again, on page 11, Supergirl facilitates a lesson on how the computer functions:
Here, the writer interestingly chooses for the students, Alec and Shanna (the “Computer Whiz Kids”) to explain the functions of the computer. As an effect, instead of seeming “nerdy,” the students that are most adept in computers and electronics are celebrated for being knowledgeable and capable. Supergirl’s approval, too, lets the comic’s readers know that being educated in computer terminology is trendy. The comic continues:
Supergirl’s dialogue—”It’s almost as useful as having your own superpowers!”—is a recurring theme throughout the comic. The overarching plotline is fairly in line with most other comics written in the day—Lex Luthor threatens to escape prison, Supergirl and Superman foil his plans. However, it is not just Supergirl and Superman; the pair rely on the students’ help, and the students rely on the TRS-80 for help. A few pages later:
Here, Supergirl’s earlier contemplation becomes reality: Supergirl’s superpowers are matched by the powers of the computer, and she even remarks: “I might need that help sometime!”
Spatially, the TRS-80 Color Computer with the telephone is framed as the holy grail, the one item of use that will get Supergirl out of this situation.
Again, on this last page of the comic, it is explicitly stated that the heroes of the story are Superman and Supergirl, yes, but also the Whiz Kids and the TRS-80 Computers: a “sensational super-team.”
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the comic has two additional pages attached:
On the second page, we get an idea of the other advertising/marketing initiatives that Radio Shack sponsored: a basic programming course and an educational programs catalog. This, along with the first page, emphasizes the focus of the advertising approach: a mix of gathering attention and excitement with the spread of genuine knowledge and information about computer systems.
The comic celebrates not only the TRS-80 but also the educated youth who inform themselves about computer terminology, technology, and programming.
“Article Clipped from The Galveston Daily News.” Newspapers.Com, 26 May 1978, http://www.newspapers.com/article/3365536/.
“Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1 Microcomputer.” National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_334337#:~:text=In%20the%20summer%20of%201977,the%20games%20Blackjack%20and%20Backgammon.
“Superman Victory by Computer : DC Comics Radio Shack Cary Bates Curt Swan Vince Colletta : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, 1981, archive.org/details/SuperManRadioShack/mode/2up.
“To the Doctor, the Lawyer, the Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker, and Everyone Else”. The Galveston Daily News (advertisement). May 26, 1978. pp. 3–A. Retrieved October 6, 2015.
TRS-80 Color Computer Archive, colorcomputerarchive.com/repo/Documents/Walkthroughs/Scott%20Adams%20Adventures/Mystery%20Fun%20House%20Walkthrough%20(Adventure%20International).txt.