The Great 1980s TIME Giveaway Gadgets

Once upon a time, there were TIME-branded tech products--lots of them. Here's their story.

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Hi, I’m Judy, one of the operators here at TIME magazine. Remember, if you call now, you’ll get TIME at almost half off the cover price. And this exclusive TIME AM/FM walkabout, free. This offer ends soon, so call right now. Our operators are standing by.

If that rings even the faintest of bells, you were watching TV in the 1980s, back when TIME found new readers via direct-response TV commercials–the sort which invite you to pick up your phone and dial a 1-800 number. We ran scads of these spots. And to make the proposition of getting TIME irresistible, we offered free gadgets to people who ordered subscriptions. Gadgets which, at the time, were at least sort of cool–digital clocks, pushbutton phones, pocket-sized radios–yet could be manufactured at price points that made the idea of giving them away economically plausible. Judged by today’s more elevated standards, they’re all quaint, cheesy and/or silly, but they did their job at the time.

I remember the ads and the gadgets well. Not that I took the bait–I was a student and read TIME at the library. But I did own a TIME giveaway item: a 35mm camera that my grandmother, one of the most loyal TIME readers I’ve ever known, received and turned over to me as a gift. It’s still among my possessions, I think, but I haven’t run across it in years. Most of the devices TIME shipped out, I suspect, eventually met similar fates.

As a child of the ’80s, I’d be nostalgic about this stuff even if I didn’t work at TIME. Thanks to YouTube, a bunch of the original commercials are now back, each one touting the wonders of a different gizmo sporting a TIME logo. Would you indulge me as I revisit them?

The TIME Machine, a Desktop Clock (1983)


[image] TIME Machine clock


Adjectives used to describe it: “handsome,” “distinctive”

Special features cited: liquid-crystal readout, quartz accuracy, perpetual calendar

TIME operator featured: Judy, who would become a durable spokesperson

TIME covers shown: “Royalty vs. the Press,” ”Defending Defense: Budget Battles and Star Wars,” “Fighting Cocaine’s Grip,” “The KGB Today,” “Paul Newman: Quite a Guy,” “Star Wars III: Return of the Jedi”

Celebrities spotted: Pope John Paul II, Yasser Arafat, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Prince William, Richard Pryor, The Beatles, Mahatma Gandhi, Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong, Meryl Streep, Helmut Kohl

Subscription rate: 27 issues for three easy installments of $7.77

The skinny: I’m not sure if this is the first TIME gadget-giveaway ad, but it typifies the format. Operator Judy calls our attention to the fact that we’re going to learn about the special offer. Then we hear the stirring TIME theme song—“Read TIME and Understand”–accompanied by imagery of TIME covers, news events, celebrities (especially Pope John Paul II), patriotic symbols and people deeply engaged by TIME. In various commercials, these readers showed their engagement in an array of ways: by arching their eyebrows, tilting or chewing on their eyeglasses, nodding, tugging their caps or forelocks, scratching their chins and laughing out loud.

The gadget in this early commercial is just a clock. But in the mid-1980s, quartz LCD timepieces still felt like new technology. And as later giveaways will show, we liked giving out time-telling gizmos—which makes sense for a publication called TIME.

The TIME Pushbutton Phone (circa 1984)


[image] TIME pushbutton phone


Adjective used to describe it: “exclusive”

Special features cited: easy to install, eliminates monthly leasing charges, automatic redialing

TIME operator featured: Judy

TIME covers shown: “Babies: What Do They Know? When Do They Know It?,” “Japan: A Nation in Search of Itself,” “Homecoming: The Return of the Polish Pope,” “Machine of the Year: The Computer Moves In,” “America’s Olympics,” “The KGB Today”

Celebrities spotted: Indira Gandhi, Fidel Castro, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Prince William, the cast of M*A*S*H, Richard Pryor, Paul Newman, Helmut Kohl

Subscription rate: 27 issues for three easy installments of $7.97

[image] TIME cover


The skinny: To me, the shocking reminder of how much times have changed isn’t that touch-tone dialing was still noteworthy in 1984—it’s that we pointed out that using this phone would allow you to stop renting your handset from the phone company, something Ma Bell required its customers to do for decades. (1984 was year that the AT&T monopoly was broken up into the Baby Bells.)

This ad shows a 1983 cover—“Babies: What Do They Know? When Do They Know It?”—which we apparently considered to be an effective selling tool, or at least a good example of an appealing TIME cover. We kept on using it in commercials, sometimes leaving the camera lovingly focused on it, until at least 1987.

The TIME AM/FM Walkabout (1984)


[image] AM/FM walkabout


Adjective used to describe it: “state of the art”

Special features cited: AM and FM; clear reception; full, rich sound; padded, adjustable headphones; weighs just ounces

TIME operator featured: Judy

TIME covers shown: “America’s Olympics: A Gold Medal for Los Angeles?,” “Michael Jackson: Why He’s a Thriller,” “Cholesterol: Now The Bad News,” “Machine of the Year: The Computer Moves In,” “Royalty vs.the Press,” “Babies: What Do They Know? When Do They Know It?,” “Maggie [Thatcher] By a Mile: What It Means, What She’ll Do”

Celebrities spotted: Fidel Castro, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Andrei Gromyko, Sally Ride and the Challenger crew, Pope John Paul II (twice), Brooke Shields, Margaret Thatcher, Eddie Murphy, the Politburo, Nastassja Kinski, Harold Washington

Subscription rate: 27 issues for three easy installments of $7.97

The skinny: It has some sort of passing physical resemblance to a Sony Walkman–the dominant portable-audio device of the 19080s–and a name with the word “Walk” in it. But I’m not even sure if TIME’s Walkabout did stereo.

The TIME Alarm Clock/Telephone (1985)


[image] TIME Clock Phone


Adjective used to describe it: “terrific”

Special features cited: snooze bar, automatic redial, pushbutton dialing

TIME operator featured: Jenny, who could be Judy’s sister

TIME covers shown: “Michael Jackson: Why He’s a Thriller,” “Viet Nam: Ten Years Later,” “Babies: What Do They Know? When Do They Know It?,” “Moscow’s New Boss: Younger, Smoother and Probably Formidable,” “AIDS: The Growing Threat,” “Play Ball! And Nobody Plays It Like Pete [Rose],” “VCRs: Santa’s Hottest Gift,” “Turning the Tables: The U.S. Strikes Back at Terrorism”

Celebrities spotted: Bruce Springsteen, Pete Rose, Ronald Reagan, a world leader or two of the mid-1980s who I don’t immediately recognize

Subscription rate: 30 issues for just four easy installments of $7.49

The skinny: The TIME alarm clock/telephone is everything the TIME pushbutton phone was—and more. I’m not sure why Jenny’s in this one rather than Judy. Or, for that matter, whether either of them actually worked in a call center taking calls from new TIME subscribers.

Speaking of the call center, it’s been upgraded: In earlier ads, the reps were seen using green-screen terminals of some sort. Now they’re all equipped with snazzy IBM PCs.

The TIME Micro Headset Radio (1985)


[image] TIME Micro Headset


Adjectives used to describe it: “remarkable,” “incredible”

Special features cited: incredibly compact, crystal-clear fidelity, hideaway headphones

TIME operator featured: Judy

TIME covers shown: “Babies: What Do They Know? When Do They Know It?,” “Moscow’s New Boss: Younger, Smoother and Probably Formidable,” mockups of the Man of the Year and Images ’85 issues

Celebrities spotted: Ronald Reagan, Cyndi Lauper, Tom Hulce

Subscription rate: 30 issues for three low payments of just $9.69

The skinny: For some reason, we ditched the TIME theme song and images of attentive readers from this point on in favor of a mildly humorous conversation between a TIME subscriber and an announcer. (My friend Andrew Leal identified the happy TIME reader for me: He’s played by Patrick Thomas O’Brien.) The relentless pace of technological progress allowed us to squeeze the features of 1984’s AM/FM walkabout into a tiny radio which reminds me—O.K., only vaguely—of an iPod Nano.

The TIME 35mm Camera (1985)


[image] TIME Camera


Adjective used to describe it: “amazing”

Special features cited; 50mm fixed-focus lens, a range of exposure settings, protective lens cap, neck strap, handsome carrying case

Adjectives used to describe it: “fantastic”

TIME operator featured: Jenny

TIME covers shown: “Michael Jackson: Why He’s a Thriller,” “A Historic Choice: Geraldine Ferraro, “Magic Meryl [Streep],” Cholesterol: And Now The Bad News,” “Computer Software: The Magic Inside the Machine,” Babies: What Do They Know? When Do They Know It?”

Celebrities spotted: Pope John Paul II, Jeane Kirkpatrick, George Shultz, Andrei Gromyko

Subscription rate: 27 issues for four easy payments of $7.49

The skinny: Another ad with an announcer stunning a TIME subscriber with a giveaway gadget. (The announcer’s voice is immediately recognizable to me from a gaggle of 1980s commercials; Andrew Leal identified him as Ralph Bell.) The camera in question may be the only TIME gadget that has a following to this day: Artsy shutterbugs still use it as a tool for lomography, the practice of taking of pictures with old toy cameras whose flimsy construction leads to interesting, unintentional effects. Although TIME’s camera is apparently a bit too well-built for the purpose compared to some models.

The TIME Phone File (Circa 1986)


[image] TIME card file


Adjective used to describe it: “exclusive”

Special features cited: built-in Rolodex-like cards for phone numbers, digital clock, pushbutton dialing, pen and pencil holder, call muting

TIME operator featured: none, sadly

TIME covers shown: “The Baby Boomers Turn 40,” “Sorry America, Your Insurance Has Been Canceled,” “Cocaine Wars,” “Mafia on Trial,” “Ain’t She Sweet: Teen Actress Molly Ringwald”

Celebrities spotted: The Royal Family at Prince Andrew’s wedding to Sarah Ferguson

Subscription rate: 30 issues for three easy installments of just $9.79

The skinny: Here’s a weird spot—it comes off as an ad for a telephone with a built-in card file, with the part about TIME feeling like an afterthought. As in modern as-seen-on-TV commercials, there’s a lot of footage showing the protagonist suffering needlessly because he doesn’t own a telephone with a built-in card file.

The TIME Travel Collection (1987)


TIME travel set


Adjective used to describe it: “handsome”

Special features: well, it’s quartz

TIME operator featured: Nancy–maybe Judy and Jenny had both moved on

TIME covers shown: “Viet Nam Ten Years Later,” “Slimming Down,” “Babies: What Do They Know? When Do They Know It?,” “Platoon: Viet Nam as It Really Was,” “The Big Chill: How Heterosexuals Are Coping With AIDS,” “You Bette! [Midler],” “Woman of the Year: Corazon Aquino”

Celebrities spotted: Nancy Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Chevy Chase, Gerald Ford, Pope John Paul II, George Shultz, Andrew Wyeth, Mikhail and Raisa Gorbhechev, Danny Kaye

Subscription rate: 30 issues for three monthly installments of just $9.89

The skinny: This is sort of a return to the early “Read TIME and Understand” era—except that instead of using TIME’s own theme song, the soundtrack is Pete Seeger’s majestic Turn! Turn! Turn!. (We seem to have sprung for the Byrds’ famous recording.) The gift, I’m sorry to say, barely qualifies as a gadget–it was a travel clock bundled with three pieces of luggage. And the whole campaign may have been winding down; if we did later ads of this sort, I can’t find ‘em on YouTube.


If I were writing this story for TIME’s sister publication Sports Illustrated, I’d cover the period–also back in the 1980s–when SI’s subscription offers involved telephones shaped like various sporting-goods items. But I’m not, so—oh, O.K., here you go…


Around 1986, there was apparently a giveaway war among the three leading newsweeklies. Here’s an ad from Newsweek; I mean no disrespect to our distinguished competitor when I say that this ad, featuring the Newsweek Bathsound waterproof shower radio, is just plain weird.


U.S. News & World Report, meanwhile, hired actor Tony Roberts as a pitchman for a commercial that attacked both TIME and Newsweek as too fluffy, touted U.S. News‘s cheaper subscription rate and talked up a “U.S. News phone system” which was actually a pushbutton phone with a built-in phone-number file, much like the one TIME offered.


In this ad, Roberts bashes TIME further–specifically complaining about coverage of Michael Jackson, shown in several TIME ads as a reason to subscribe to TIME–before segueing into an offer for a free U.S. News wristwatch.


[image] TIME

Harry McCracken /

U.S. News wasn’t the only weekly that dangled watches as premiums: I own three vintage TIME timepieces myself, including a 1981 calculator model whose only flaw is the fact that it isn’t Y2k-compliant. (I don’t know if any of them were ever advertised on TV.) Still, Roberts’ case that U.S. News is more serious and valuable than TIME is undercut by his free-wristwatch pitch.

Truth to tell, none of these giveaways exactly enhanced the gravitas of the publications in question. In 1990, TIME’s then-publisher, Louis A. Weill III said as much in a New York Times article that quoted him as saying that the gift premiums, which the publication had ended, “‘were eroding our brand image.”

I don’t blame TIME management for ditching the gadgets–but I remain glad that they existed in the first place. And if you happen to have a TIME AM/FM Walkabout or a TIME Alarm Clock/Radio tucked away somewhere, lemme know. I still haven’t ever seen one in person, and if we have any left, I’m not sure what we did with them.