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Watergate, back again to help sell restaurant food delivery

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I suppose we should feel flattered that companies are willing to tailor their advertisements to the Washington market. So why do I find myself irritated with an ad I’ve seen recently on the sides of Metrobuses and in Metrorail cars?

The ad is for a company called Seamless. It streamlines ordering food from restaurants. Rather than call a restaurant, you use Seamless — either online or through an app on your mobile device — to place an order. The company was founded in 1999 and is now in 40 cities across the United States.

“What we’re trying to fight are people who call restaurants,” said Steven Tristan Young, Seamless’s director of marketing. To Seamless, phones are antiquated, uncool. Calling a restaurant to place an order is like cleaning your clothes with a mangle or treating your venereal disease with mercury.

Phones = bad.

Okay, got that? With that in mind, here is the Seamless ad:

Seamless:

Order your food online.

Impeach phone calls. Vote for faster ordering.

The last good phone call was Watergate.

Let’s deconstruct that. “Impeach” I get. And “Vote,” too. Kind of a cliche in Washington but understandable and probably inevitable. It’s the last sentence that flummoxes me. I know a fair amount about Watergate. I was kind of obsessed with it when I was a kid. But that line didn’t ring any bells. I asked Steven what it means.

“We wanted to play off the Watergate phone call,” he said.

What Watergate phone call?

“I think it was Deep Throat making the phone call, tipping off the DNC about what happened,” he said.

Say what?

Of course, that didn’t happen. But maybe I don’t know the Watergate story as well as I should. I called Barry Sussman. In 1972, he was The Post’s city editor and oversaw the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as they unraveled the scandal that would bring down Richard Nixon.

I read Barry the ad: The last good phone call was Watergate.

“The question is, what does that mean?” he said. “I wonder what they have in mind.”

The Nixon operatives who broke into the Democratic National Committee’s campaign headquarters didn’t use the phone but they did have a walkie-talkie, Barry said.

He pondered some more. When the burglars were in jail there was what Barry described as the “lack of a phone call.” Lawyers showed up without the suspects having even placed a call. And, of course, Woodward and Bernstein spent a lot of time on the telephone, talking with sources.

Barry pointed out that when they were caught, the Nixon burglars were in the DNC office to bug the phones — or, rather, to figure out why one bug they’d installed previously wasn’t working.

But of the Seamless folks who wrote the ad, he said: “They have no idea what they’re talking about. They’re trying to attract attention.”

I suppose that’s what an ad is supposed to do.

I told Steven that Deep Throat didn’t call the DNC. A few days later, I got an e-mail from Seamless clarifying what the ad means: “While Watergate was specifically about the break-in, it did involve the attempt to bug telephones. . . . When read with the subhead, ‘Order your food online,’ the ad gives the call to action for people to skip picking up the phone to order takeout and delivery, and instead do it online or through our suite of mobile apps. The joke implies that Watergate was the last time a phone call was so important that it was worth bugging.”

Hokay. I think it’s more a case of: “Hey, it’s Washington. Let’s throw the word ‘Watergate’ up there. It’s kind of Washington-y.”

There’s another ad campaign aimed at Washingtonians that’s hanging in Metro. It’s for Tropicana’s no pulp orange juice. One big poster urges breakfast bipartisanship, predictably proclaiming: “A good reason to reach across the aisle.” Another says: “Beautify our transit system. Smile.”

Don’t they know that no one smiles on the Metro and that you’re not allowed to drink?

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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