What's So Funny about the iPad?

"It's hard to see how something so simple, so thin and so light, could possibly be so capable." If you ask me, we've been sold that line about pads before. So is it any wonder we're laughing?
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What's with those guys at Apple?

After months of feverish speculation, the kind of build-up that invariably leads to disappointment and a crushing let-down (remember the Segway?), Apple finally unveiled their new, much-ballyhooed touch-screen device ... and it's called the "iPad."

The sonic boom you just heard was the explosion of female laughter rocking the internet. As arpiel@bill_easterly tweeted, today was "the day Apple turned the web into junior high." Bloggers at normally staid business and techno-geek sites went into a feeding frenzy and Twitter experienced a system-wide slowdown due to the amount of website traffic about Apple. A good chunk of those tweets, at least from the distaff tweeters, were about the hilarity of anyone dumb enough to name an electronic device a "pad"; and "iTampon" quickly became a top-trending topic. Had Steve Jobs and the presumably male marketing team at Apple bothered to consult any candid female of reproductive age, they might have opted for, say, something boring yet distinctly un-risible, like the "iTablet" or "iSlate." Hey, if they had even googled "iPad" or gone on youtube, they might have stumbled upon this weirdly prescient Mad TV skit from 2006 (which is hilarious despite the clunky and anatomically confused joke about cervical size and pad comfort. Dearth of female writers in TV sketch comedy, anyone?).

Not to parse humor (always a deadly practice), but I'd nevertheless argue that those of us who find the iPad announcement funny do so for different reasons. Like many, I can't get over the stunningly corporate/male cluelessness of it all. Others are tickled by the surreal, Marcel Duchamp-esque images and puns that spring to mind; whereas others love to see a guy like Steve Jobs step in a PR cow pile of his own making. Other people apparently find any mention of menstruation, however fleeting and indirect, to be so uncomfortable-making as to be truly hilarious. Humor is, after all, partly rooted in anxiety; and having just co-written a book on the cultural story of menstruation, I can assure you that comedy (in the form of jokes, euphemisms and gross-out gags) has long been one of the few acceptable ways to talk about menstruation and the products associated with it.

But I think a lot of the hilarity has to do with a shared level of sophistication women have when it comes to advertising, especially when it comes to the language of the oblique and the selling of the unsellable. From the dawn of commercial products over a hundred years ago to the 21st century, femcare advertising has always consisted of vague language, vaguer images (ever wonder about that weird blue fluid tampons are invariably shown soaking in?), and a generically zesty, can-do message that invariably has nothing to do with what's actually being sold. Femcare commercials tell us to "outsmart Mother Nature," to "live free. Stay free," and to "have a happy period. Always," while selling us on supposed improvements like "flexi-wings," "pearlescent applicators," and "leak-lock systems." The convoluted dance of indirect language, squeamishness, and hard sell that constitutes femcare advertising is something every female over the age of 12 can recognize at a hundred paces.

And now consider these phrases from apple.com's promotional video:

"It's hard to see how something so simple, so thin and so light, could possibly be so capable."
"it's going to change the way we do the things we do every day."
"I don't have to change myself to fit the product ... it fits me."

If you ask me, we've been sold that line about pads before. So is it any wonder we're laughing?

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