Isaac Asimov, Radio Shack Pitchman

“I’ll never learn how to use it." Isaac Asimov wrote the prediction in his diary in May 1981, the same month Radio Shack delivered a Tandy TRS-80 Model II microcomputer to his 33rd story apartment in New York City. The various boxes sat, unopened, until a Radio Shack employee arrived a week later to set up the equipment in the corner of Asimov’s living room.

Turning it on would mark two important milestones in the 61-year-old author’s life: It would end his exclusive use of a typewriter, and it would lead to Asimov’s face becoming a familiar sight to more than 30 million Americans browsing the latest and greatest products in Radio Shack's catalogs.

The race to dominate the burgeoning personal computer market in the early 1980s forced hardware and software manufacturers to address consumer technophobia with familiar faces: talk show host Dick Cavett shilled for IBM; Alan Alda spoke for Atari in a deal said to be worth $10 million; Bruce Jenner endorsed Activision. Of Roger Moore being seen in ads for Spectravideo PCs, company spokesman Bob Griffin said, “Because he’s playing James Bond, he has universal association with high tech.”

Radio Shack, the then-popular electronics chain and a subsidiary of Tandy, flinched at playing the celebrity game, avoiding recognizable personalities in television ads. They could afford to take a more conservative approach: The TRS-80 was the best-selling personal computer of 1980, moving more than 200,000 units.

The following year, however, would be a crucial one for the company. New models of the TRS-80 were due, including budget entries, a color-screen version, and a pocket-sized model. Coincidentally, they had recently loaned well-known “futurist” Asimov one of their high-end Model II units (priced at $3499) so the author could write a story on the new wave of word processing software for Byte magazine.

Asimov later wrote that he resolved his wariness over adopting a new way of working because he had a personal tutor: The Radio Shack employee who followed up with the equipment delivery taught him about the unit, its pinwheel printer, and the Scripsit word processing software. By the end of 1981, he was adept enough at it to agree to endorse Tandy’s products in an “open-ended” contract. He claimed their pocket PC closely resembled the technology he had written about in his 1951 work, Foundation.

Fearing something might go awry, Asimov never actually replaced his manual typewriter: He still used it for first drafts of novels, and would re-type subsequent drafts into Scripsit, which he also used for correspondence and short pieces. Asimov was also in the habit of printing out virtually everything he wrote on the TRS, suspicious the 5.25-inch floppy disks might not be a reliable storage method.

He reserved most of his enthusiasm for the TRS-80 over correcting typos, having developed a tendency to mix up "seep," "seem," and "seen," and cursing the fact he often accidentally typed “t4he” into many manuscripts. In The Roving Mind, he wrote:

Staring at a page of type on the television screen, I find myself eagerly looking for typos so that I can have the fun of changing them. Bang goes the “F1” and the “u” and the “F2” and “cold” suddenly becomes “could” and no sign exists it was ever anything else….Then I have it printed – br-r-rp, br-r-rp, br-r-rp – and as each perfect page is formed, my heart swells with pride.

Radio Shack mailed out more than 30 million product catalogs in those days, with Asimov garnering the most responses of any of their pitchmen. (The company also used Incredible Hulk star Bill Bixby.) Before his tenure was up in the mid-1980s, Asimov even extended his mutton-chopped profile to their stereo equipment.

Owing to Scripsit’s interface, Asimov believed he shaved an estimated 15 minutes off the time it would’ve taken him to write a magazine feature on his typewriter. The prolific author of more than 500 books speculated he probably wasn’t going to get any more efficient than that. “I am a one-man book of the month club,” he wrote. “How far can I speed up beyond that? In fact, who in the world would want me to?”

John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Why Lucky the Leprechaun Was Missing From Some Lucky Charms Boxes in 1975
Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to picture a box of Lucky Charms without a smiling leprechaun plastered on the front of it. But cereal fans living in New England in the 1970s may remember a brief period when Lucky was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a forgetful wizard who was barely given a chance to make a blip in cereal mascot history.

As Atlas Obscura shared in a recent story, Waldo the Wizard became the face of Lucky Charms in select stores in 1975. At that point, Lucky had been representing the brand since it was introduced over a decade earlier, but General Mills was toying with going in a different direction with the marketing.

Lucky’s shtick hasn’t changed much since Lucky Charms was introduced in 1964: In commercials, the leprechaun is enjoying his treasured cereal when a group of hungry kids comes along. Instead of offering to share, Lucky plots to keep his Lucky Charms to himself and always fails. It’s not exactly controversial as far as kids' ads go, but in the mid-1970s, executives worried that the mascot's unfriendly attitude towards children would rub consumers the wrong way.

Enter Waldo: a wizard who wore a green cloak spangled with hearts, stars, clovers, and moons, and, like Lucky, adored Lucky Charms. But unlike Lucky, Waldo was always warm with kids and never hesitated to share his breakfast. Instead of running away, his gag was that he was always forgetting where he put his box of Lucky Charms, to which the kids responded by reminding him that he could just conjure some up with magic.

Shoppers responded positively to Waldo during his trial run in New England stores, but after less than a year, General Mills pulled the plug on the experiment. It turned out that having a slightly more innocuous character wasn’t worth abandoning the original mascot after spending so much time and money promoting him.

While he’s undergone a few redesigns in the past 50 years, Lucky is still prominently displayed on every box of Lucky Charms. His cereal-hoarding tendencies have also remained the same, though Lucky was written to be a bit friendlier following Waldo’s short-lived era.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


More from mental floss studios