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Selling Sinclair:
The Creation of "Uncle Clive"

Sinclair faced a difficult marketing challenge in the 1980s, when the company developed its range of home computers. Until the ZX80 came along, Sinclair's range had a fairly straightforward division between pre-assembled consumer products (such as most of the calculator range) and hobbyist kits (such as most of the audio devices). Marketing to hobbyists required a significantly different pitch from marketing to technologically illiterate consumers. With the ZX range of computers, Sinclair faced the difficult task of marketing the range to both groups at once. The machines would have to gain the support of hobbyists - hence the kit versions of the ZX80 and ZX81 and the do-it-yourself Spectrum upgrade kit - while at the same time not frightening off computer novices.

Primary Contact, Sinclair's marketing agency, concentrated on marketing to the novices while still providing enough technical detail to get the hobbyists hooked. Sinclair's adverts moved into full colour, sometimes spread over as many as eight pages in glossy mainstream publications like Personal Computer World. Big glossy photographs of the products were in. Technical data was out, or at least much reduced compared to the hobbyist-only days. Ease and simplicity were constantly stressed. The idiosyncratic keyword entry system of the ZX computers was marketed as "eliminating a great deal of tiresome typing". The educational value of the computers was played up - one of the ZX80 adverts shows a father instructing his son in the art of ZX80 programming, illustrating the use of the machine "as a family learning aid." (Looking back at the adverts, the total lack of any female involvement is striking - they all show men happily enjoying Sinclair products while the women look on admiringly. It has to be said that this probably wasn't too far off the mark at the time; the hobbyist world was indeed very much male-dominated.)

It was at around this time that the legend of "Uncle Clive" Sinclair came into being. Nobody seems to know exactly who originated it. Guy Kewney, a gossip columnist at Personal Computer World, has claimed credit for the invention of the "Uncle Clive" persona but the ultimate credit seems to have lain with Primary Contact. The agency recognised at the start of the 1980s that Sinclair's new mainstream customers needed some way of identifying more personally with the company. They hit on the idea of using Clive Sinclair himself as the figurehead, a move that succeeded brilliantly. He had not exactly been an obscure figure before, but now he moved into the spotlight in a way that none of his rivals were able to emulate. Few people would have recognised Amstrad's Alan Sugar on the street, unless they lived in Tottenham, but "Uncle Clive" became a household name with an instantly recognisable face, much loved by cartoonists. Andy Knott of Kinnear, the PR agency which handled the Sinclair advertising contract briefly in 1985-86, explained:

[Clive] also contributes the personality that is viewed from the outside, and actually that is very valuable. When people go in to buy a Sinclair product it's almost as if they're buying it from a friend - you know, my uncle made this ...
(Interview, 22 October 1985, in Adamson and Kennedy, Sinclair & the Sunrise Technology)

The way Sinclair's image was used seems, in retrospect, to have had much to do with the mood of national defiance (or perhaps hubris) stoked by Margaret Thatcher's Tory government at the start of the 1980s. Britain had been in poor economic shape throughout the 1970s. Thatcher's monetarist "shock therapy" caused economic upheavals on a scale not experienced since the Great Depression fifty years earlier, with three million unemployed and great swathes of industrialised Britain becoming poverty blackspots as unprofitable shipyards, steel mills and coal mines were systematically closed down. It was against this background that Sinclair was marketed as the flagbearer of a new high-tech Britain, the underdog taking the fight to the Americans and Japanese. It was a very successful strategy; as journalist David O'Reilly noted,

By astute use of public relations, particularly playing up his image of a Briton taking on the world, Sinclair has become the best-known name in micros.
(Microscope, October 1982)

One of the most striking images from this campaign came in 1984, when the Sinclair QL was launched - the advertising campaign included a TV spot showing Sinclair himself literally leaping over a row of the competitors' computers, literally a "Quantum Leap".

It's not surprising that the Thatcher government - which was highly unpopular until the Falklands War and the Labour opposition's collective suicide made the 1983 election a walkover - latched onto Sinclair's success. Margaret Thatcher herself was a great fan of Sinclair, even going so far as to present the visiting Japanese prime minister with a ZX Spectrum. It probably came as a surprise only to Sinclair himself when he was awarded a knighthood in 1983, setting the seal on his fame. But his appeal as a business icon was not confined to Right-wing politicians. That same year, the far from Thatcherite Guardian newspaper awarded Sinclair his Young Businessman of the Year, despite the fact that (at the age of 43) he was not exactly young and nor was he a businessman, by his own lights. Other awards soon came rolling in - a Visiting Fellowship from Robinson College, Cambridge, Honorary Doctorates of Science from the Universities of Bath, Warwick and Heriot-Watt as well as UMIST the following year, a Visiting Professorship and Honorary Fellowship from Imperial College, London and a Mullard Medal from the Royal Society, recognising his work in the field of electronics.

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Chris Owen 1994-2003