Big Blue Cookie Monster


by Tim Moran

The IBM of the 1960s was serious business. It was still helmed by the son of its first real president, the business icon Thomas J. Watson Sr. (of "THINK" fame), and it was Thomas J. Watson Jr. who, according to IBM's own archives, "foresaw the role computers would play in business, and he led IBM's transformation from a medium-sized maker of tabulating equipment and typewriters into a computer industry leader."

Not only did Watson fils take on technology itself, he also changed the way technology was sold. Says the archive: "Rather than offer hardware, services and software exclusively in packages, marketers 'unbundled' the components and offered them for sale individually. Unbundling gave birth to the multibillion-dollar software and services industries, of which IBM is today a world leader." These were heady days for the company, which had long since left competitors in the dust of the data center floor.

So who would have thought, then, that while all this was going on, the Muppets were providing motivational advice to scores of IBM salesmen and marketers?

A great article on Technologizer.com, "The IBM Muppet Show," tells how the maker of System 360 hooked up with the eventual denizens of Sesame Street. Writes Andrew Leal, author of the article: "IBM. The Muppets. Two venerable institutions--but not ones we tend to associate with each other. Yet in the late 1960s, before most people had ever seen a computer in person or could identify a Muppet on sight, the two teamed up when IBM contracted with Jim Henson for a series of short films designed to help its sales staff."

The films appear to be of two main types: short "meeting films," used to lighten up long corporate sales meetings, and longer films that explained "IBM's products, service, and approach. Though the industrials look like commercials, their purpose seems to have been to motivate IBM's sales team and/or to serve as a primer to potential corporate clients."

The article serves up four videos of these films, including one in which Rowlf portrays an IBM salesman, progressing from using "a standard typewriter to an electric IBM model to finally using a Selectric." Another stars Cookie Monster, who makes a meal of an computerized coffee maker and eventually gets blown to bits.

Writes Leal of the latter one: "This entertaining short displays an ambivalent attitude towards technology, showing it as complicated, seemingly pointless, and likely to self-destruct. Not a message one would expect from IBM, but it shows that the company-despite its reputations as a pretty button-downed place-had a corporate ability to laugh at itself." Notes Wikipedia: "As author Malcolm Gladwell has stated, 'Sesame Street was built around a single, breakthrough insight: that if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them.'"

Perhaps IBM believed this was true for salesmen, too.