Have You Misunderstood Apple’s New Holiday Commercial?

Let’s not fall into the trap of believing that the moment technology is involved, we become inherently anti-social, or that “instantaneous mediated nostalgia” and “real-life human connection” are mutually exclusive.
A boy sits on a fence while looking at his phone.

Earlier this week, Apple released a holiday commercial featuring their iPhone. Titled “Misunderstood,” it follows a teenager who’s been dragged along to the big family Christmas. While his family enjoys their time together (baking cookies, sledding, etc.), he stares at his iPhone. He’s occasionally cajoled into participating, but he quickly returns to staring at that Retina display, seemingly oblivious to everything, and everyone, around him. Until Christmas morning, that is, when he… well, you’ll need to see for yourself.

“Misunderstood” has received a lot of positive coverage, and so far, it’s been watched nearly 2.8 million times on YouTube in the last two days. Apple clearly has a hit on their hands that, while not as iconic as some of their commercials, has struck a chord with many. But not everyone.

CaPC’s editor-in-chief, Richard Clark got into a small Twitter debate with The Gospel Coalition’s Joe Carter after Carter tweeted his concerns with the commercial: “Am I wrong in thinking Apple’s latest ad promotes instantaneous mediated nostalgia over real-life human connection?”

But Jennifer Rooney’s criticism was even more pointed. In an article titled “The iPhone Misunderstood’ Christmas Ad Is A Sad Commentary On Culture And Does Apple No Favors” (h/t Jason Kottke), she writes:

I found it depressing, upsetting, and a sad commentary on our social-, video- and image-obsessed culture. The goal, of course, was to market the wonder of the iPhone using the element of surprise: show a seemingly slacker teen disengaged from the goings-on of family life, his eyeballs glued to his iPhone — save for very fleeting moments — suddenly reveals to stunned family members a touching video he’d made of their Christmas merriment. That he’d been creating all day.

The problem is that while he was creating, he wasn’t really living the day, he was a mere voyeur during it. The message? Life is better through video. Don’t live life, tape it.

Rooney also quotes a brand consultant named Jonathan Salem Baskin who says “This spot is about technology. It’s really depressing.”

This reading of the commercial is interesting, but also wrong. I do agree with Baskin that “Misunderstood” is about technology — it’s an Apple commercial, after all. But as with many Apple commercials, it’s not about the technology itself, but rather, about what the technology lets people accomplish. Humans, not devices, are at the center of Apple’s ads. In the case of “Misunderstood,” it’s about how technology that so often seems like an alienating force (i.e., smartphones) can actually help us appreciate our relationships and shared human-ness. (For another example, watch the original FaceTime ad.)

The beauty of the teen’s video — watch it here in its entirety — is that it documents those little moments that make the holidays so special — the intimacy, goofiness, etc., that occur when so many family members gather under one roof — that would otherwise be lost or overlooked. The video is a reminder to the family of what it looks like for them to be a family, of the magic that occurs when they’re together. Perhaps this is what Carter was referring to as “instantaneous mediated nostalgia,” but in this instance, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Also, I’m not so sure that someone making a video like this teen’s is quite as detached as Carter, Rooney, et al. think. I’ve made similar videos, and yes, I was certainly focused on my camera and the shots I was getting, but I was also deeply present at the time. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and I still remember the scenes I shot and edited, from both inside and outside the frame. Slate’s John Dickerson discusses this when he writes:

Lately, there has been some concern about all of this activity. Last weekend in the New York Times, Sherry Turkle wrote about putting our lives “on pause” in order to tweet, text, or take a selfie: “When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.” A few months ago, also in the Times, Nick Bilton wrote that we’re all so busy capturing moments, we’re not living in them.

This is a false choice. You can live in the moment and capture it. (Apple’s ubiquitous holiday ad made a version of this point and went viral.) I have the notebooks to prove it (most of them, anyway), and the proof is in how acutely I feel the loss of the two last seen in and around seats 8A and 11F. What I have lost is not just my observations of various moments — made more meaningful because I stopped to put them into words — but I’ve also lost the feelings and recollections those entries would have unlocked when I looked back over them.

I find “Misunderstood” rather convicting. I am often like that teen: my head is bowed and my eyes fixated on my iPhone (just ask my wife). Unlike the teen, however, I’m usually doing so for selfish reasons. I’m checking my e-mail, my tweets, my RSS feeds, etc. What would it look like if I was staring at my phone, not to fulfill my own narcissism, but because I was using it to bless those who were around me? Maybe not by making a video (though that would be really cool), but perhaps by looking for that perfect gift for my kids, or searching for an article that might help a friend going through a hard time, or figuring out a recipe so I can give my wife a break from cooking that night.

Yes, there’s a time to put the phone down and be present in a way that isn’t mediated by technology. But let’s not fall into the trap of believing that the moment technology is involved, we become inherently anti-social, or that “instantaneous mediated nostalgia” and “real-life human connection” are mutually exclusive. Indeed, as “Misunderstood” shows, it’s possible for the two to actually enhance each other and deepen our relationships in ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .

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