As you fantasize about getting yourself the very coolest, hippest, newest gadget on the block — an Apple Watch, that is — pause for a moment to consider the perspective of the stunned and shaken Bradley Johnson.
Johnson is a director at Advertising Age magazine, the bible of the marketing business (and a place I worked eons ago), who recently set himself a kind of crazy task. He would look through 85 years of issues to search for “The beginning of everything” — everything being technology that changed the way we communicate.
The idea was to create a special issue of the magazine, which he did. It was so fascinating, I called him up to hear more. What did the technologies look like as they emerged? Who saw the promise? Who changed with the times? And what can Apple learn from Zenith?
Oh please, dear reader. You’ve never heard of Zenith? That’s like never having heard of MySpace!
MySpace. It was like Facebook, except — well, never mind.
Zenith began as a radio company in the 1920s. It introduced the first portable radio in 1924. In the ’50s, it started making televisions, and in the ’60s, it made color television. To own a Zenith was to own the classiest gadget around. It gave you bragging rights.
Meantime, RCA — as in Radio Corporation of America — was right there, too.
“Both those brands made the jump from radio to television,” says Johnson. He spent days reading old articles about their incredible foresight and brilliant marketing. “Yet fast-forward and Zenith is technically now owned by LG. And RCA is —” he paused. “I don’t know if it’s even a factor in the consumer electronics market. The kings today are Samsung, LG, and to a lesser extent, Sony.”
Somewhere along the way, the early giants lost their mojo.
And how about IBM? Sure, it is still a huge company and I loved watching Watson kill on “Jeopardy!” but it isn’t the juggernaut it was in ’60s. As Johnson looked over the old ads from that era, “The most beautiful tech advertising that I came across was for the IBM electric typewriter. The hot product at the time was the Selectric — the typewriter with the ball element in it, the pinnacle of typewriters. If you’re an executive and you have that sitting on your secretary’s desk in the ’60s, that’s a sign of success,” says Johnson.
The machines were so sleek and iconic, IBM’s print ads for them were simple: Show the object, light it well, and wait for the orders to flood in. In fact, they reminded Johnson of ads for Apple.
Unstoppable, unbeatable Apple.
These days you can still sometimes find a Selectric at a garage sale.
If the companies were caught flat-footed over and over, was there anyone who truly understood where technology was taking us?
Turns out there was: An ad exec named E.B. Weiss, who wrote a column in Ad Age in the ’50s and ’60s.
“I was not familiar with Weiss,” says Johnson. But reading those old issues of the magazine, “I was stunned by his prescience.”
In his 1960s column, Weiss actually wrote that someday, “It will be possible to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, by voice, sight or written message — instantaneously. All information will be instantly recorded — instantly retrievable.”
Johnson’s jaw dropped as he read more Weiss: “Ultimately, individuals equipped with miniature television transmitter-receivers will communicate directly with one another worldwide, using personal channels similar to today’s personal telephone — and just as simply.”
Weiss also told the Mad Men of the hippie era that television, books, and magazines will be “converted into identical bits of energy for transmission over any distance,” and a “home console” will allow people to perform “functions that previously could be performed only in the business office.”
Weiss was in his 60s in the ’60s, and saw almost exactly where we were going.
Zenith, RCA — and let’s not forget Kodak — did not.
Oh, they had a good run. The kind Apple — and Facebook, and Uber, etc., etc. — are enjoying now. But someday, maybe around 2115, some curious historian may paw through dusty posts from the days when folks read blogs (how quaint!) and have to Google (or whatever they’ll be doing by then) to find out: “What’s Apple?”
So don’t feel too bad if you can’t afford one of those watches.
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and founder and writer of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.