Can You Get the Joke in the WaPo's iPad App Ad? Maybe If You're Over 50

Last Updated Nov 10, 2010 1:51 PM EST

The Washington Post's new ad for its iPad app is one of the strangest you'll see this year: it collapses all the negative stereotypes about old media into two minutes and leaves viewers to figure out whether it's an ironic joke or not. In fact it is, but it only makes sense if you've seen All The President's Men -- a 1976 movie about the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon two years earlier.

It begins with legendary Post reporter Bob Woodward tapping away at an electric typewriter:


Next to him is a woman scanning through a microfiche machine, and Woodward doesn't have a computer on his desk. Surely, you think to yourself, he doesn't still work this way? Only older viewers will realize that this is a riff on the opening scene of President's.

Woodward is handed an iPad by a woman several decades his junior who spouts a load of jargon about apps, iPads and homescreens. Puzzled, he sets off an a journey through the newsroom, allowing his colleagues to espouse the virtues of the app as he passes. As Woodward walks by, Celebritology blogger Liz Kelly says, "Hey, was that Robert Redford?" Redford, of course, played Woodward in the movie although the two look nothing like each other.

It's some of the worst acting you'll ever see, and it isn't helped by the chirpy script. Political blogger Chris Cillizza sounds like he's in an infomercial:

This five-topics feature shows fresh-posted articles, related news from other reliable sources, isolates the best Twitter activity and even lets me browse through Facebook comments. I use it to follow the money!
Only books editor Ron Charles shows any talent. Watching himself on an iPad he exclaims, "I'm on television!" The joke -- possibly, because I'm being generous here -- is that the publishing industry guy is more excited about video than he is about the crumbling medium he's paid to cover by another crumbling medium.

Eventually, Woodward ends up in the office of Ben Bradlee, vp of the WaPo and the editor during the paper's Watergate scoop. "Help, I don't understand!" says Woodward, sounding almost exactly like a Life Alert user who has fallen and can't get up.

Bradlee proves to be the star of the spot, as he schools Woodward on the iPad in the manner of Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men. "These kids think tweets twit themselves," he concludes, feet on the desk.

If you're not familiar with the Watergate era, the movie, and Woodward's role within it -- and you have to be either over 50 or a movie/history buff to do so -- then the ad just looks like a bunch of doddering old fools trying desperately to get to grips with a technology that seems intent on putting them out of business.

If you are familiar with it, then it's a video puzzle in which you're invited to spot as many references to the events of 35 years ago as you can in two minutes. Confounding though it is, it might be enough to tease the WaPo's aging audience into trying the app, which will cost $3.99 a month after an initial free intro period.

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