Apple has a web-only new ad in heavy rotation that uses the conceit of writing an op-ed as a hook for the Mac versus PC message.
It shows the PC guy telling the Mac guy he's in the middle of writing an op-ed, and then he literally is speaking from the middle of a newspaper article headlined "Stop Switching To Mac!" by "PC." Things are going so well for Macs, the poor sod says (can you tell what kind of computer I use?) that the PC world needs to read an op-ed about it.
As a the author of dozens of op-eds in news under my own name and more as a ghostwriter for others, I was at first pleased that my lowly pursuit of just the right 750 words was being glamorized by Apple. But then I began to worry that by making op-writing something the nerdy PC guy did, it was instantly branded as uncool.
I soon realized, though, that the image people had of people like me (OK, I realize that most people have never given it a second's thought) paled in importance to the revolutionary use Apple was making of what could be called "eyeball space."
While things go back and forth between the actors, the viewer's eyes are drawn to the text of the fake op-ed used in the ad. You discover it's not just placeholder type but a real narrative.
It's a longer-form version of the actor's nerdy shtick, complaining about people thinking Macs are better by listing all the ways Macs are indeed better. It even trashes Vista. Pretty funny stuff.
Not actually an effective op-ed (it doesn't have a punchy enough opening, it fails to quote experts and it doesn't end with a remedy -- there! I've just told you the secret of op-ed writing) but it's amusing enough. Before long, you realize you've read hundreds more words amplifying Apple's message, squeezing whole minutes more out of the traditional 30-second spot. This is a real shot in the arm for fans like me of the written word, which has been mostly going the way of the dinosaurs. But it's not entirely a new idea.
Using type on a screen to cram more information into ads was a specialty of the influential New York political consultant, David Garth. As the New York Times wrote in 1999:
"The advertisements are intended to complement - even to be confused with - news reports of the candidate's daily doings. They routinely include a welter of written information superimposed on the picture. This is a technique, Mr. Garth said, that he first used in 1970 to cover a pesky scratch on videotape shot through a defective lens."
Now news crawls not only are omnipresent in political ads, you can't turn on cable news without the screen being invaded by a ticker that within two minutes will be sure to mention Paris Hilton. Eyeballs are eyeballs, the saying goes, and if you're giving them choices of things to do they might stay tuned into your media space longer.
I don't know how many people like me who see the web ad will take the trouble of actually reading the graphic, although Apple seems to be counting on everyone reading tiny print on a photo caption to understand the way the commercial ends. No doubt I have a different opinion on the allure of opinion than most people.
But all in all, I've decided the Apple ad is good for my profession. It's getting people at least to recognize op-eds. Now, it's up to writers like me who know that occupying a prominent piece of real estate in the news means you should bloody well be lively. Just ask Jon Stewart.
Stewart described his job in a New York Times article as "throwing spitballs" from the back of the room. I like to think of mine as zinging an arrow across to the rest of the paper, telling "truth to power" as some of my radical cohorts in the 1980s liked to say. (No, I do not know William Ayers. But I do have Abbie Hoffman's desk.)
So if you see the Apple ad, or better yet, if you could be motivated to look at the op-ed page tomorrow (by the way, it stands for page opposite the editorial page), I beseech you to think of the lonely writer who agonized over the words before you. Unless you're reading an article by Henry Kissinger, in which case you need to turn the page right away.
Look at it this way. Most people read the newspaper because they're afraid they'd miss something if they didn't, or, in fewer instances, have an interest in an aspect of modern life outside of a video screen.
Unlike any other part of the newspaper, the op-ed space is designed to engage you about something of urgent interest in a relatively few words. Op-Eds are fun to read and so good for you. So try one today. You never know -- you might learn something. And maybe next time, Apple will go after the sports section.