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Sometimes We Need More Back-to-the-Future Advertising

I’m on a plane to New Jersey for my 25th high school reunion, which promises a cover band that will play both Billy Idol and Cyndi Lauper, and a slide show of pictures from when we all had mullets. Low-tech time travel! And earlier this week my kids and I watched the 1989 box office hit Back to the Future II, which features actual time travel. You may already be aware that the movie sends Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) into a distant future — 2015 — to meet his older self and that older self’s wayward children.

It’s always fun when we get the chance to catch up to imagined futures depicted in science fiction (or 80s comedies). In this case Robert Zemeckis et al totally blew it with the flying cars, hovering skateboards and the eighties-only-brighter outfits. But Doc’s pocket computer does look a lot like an iPhone, and I, for one, eat a lot of compressed, dehydrated foods (and our modern foil-wrapped energy bars don’t even require a rehydrating oven).

I also love vintage ads, mostly because of how silly they sound to contemporary ears. Like ads encouraging you to pour 7Up down your baby’s throat or doctors recommending Camel cigarettes. But every now and then you find a vintage ad that should still be in rotation, like this one from IBM (thanks, Kurt!):

IBM ad from the January 1985 issue of the Atlantic Monthly

IBM ad from the January 1985 issue of the Atlantic Monthly

From the modern-day Atlantic:

The January 1985 issue of The Atlantic Monthly offered its readers an assortment of wonders. A cover story on “Theaterphobia” — a moviegoer’s experience on Broadway — penned by one David Denby. A humor piece by Patricia Marx titled, cheekily, “Getting Along With Russians.” A literary take on the complexities of E.M. Forster, and of Degas, and of Matisse. And that was just the journalism. There were also the ads. Oh, such ads! Ads for cars (“there is a special feel in an Oldsmobile”). Ads for cigarettes (Marlboro/Merit/Carlton) featuring horses and bold claims regarding tar levels and, in one particularly awesome instance, a surly-looking sea captain. Ads for delights both physical (NordicTrak cross-country ski machine!) and intellectual (Book of the Month Club!).

Plus this ad from IBM promoting its investment in programs to increase the number of women studying and working in science, tech, engineering and math:

In the past ten years, IBM has supported more than 90 programs designed to strengthen women’s skills in these and other areas. This support includes small grants for pre-college programs in engineering, major grants for science programs at leading women’s colleges, and grants for doctoral fellowships in physics, computer science, mathematics, chemistry, engineering, and materials science.

According to IBM’s ad, 13.6% of math and science PhDs in early 1980s were women. I assume that counts all living PhDs at the time, not just graduates in a given year. Given the current stats that say 22% of engineering PhDs and 27% of math and computer science PhDs are award to women (see Inside Higher Ed), the numbers should be heading in the right direction, eventually. But, dang, that’s not exactly lightning-speed progress. And as the recent controversy over Twitter’s all-male board makes clear, the shortage of women in tech needs an explanation that goes beyond math. Perhaps boardrooms that include some women will invest more money in educational programs (and ad campaigns) that accelerate the pace of change.