Apple's latest television ad, “Misunderstood,” is leaving viewers with impassioned and conflicting interpretations. Giving Talmudic treatment to a short commercial might seem like overkill, especially given the Christmas theme. But I think we’re lucky the narrative has become a Rorschach test for discussing the social and ethical impact of technology.
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The protagonist of the ad is a young man who appears to care more about being on his phone than focusing on what his Christmas celebrating family is doing right before his eyes. But in the end, he surprises everyone and reveals that, ta-da, the whole time he really was creating a finely edited video of their holiday—a digital heirloom to cherish, filled with shared memories of cookies, skating, tree decorating, and snowman building.
What could be bad about this homage to digital age family values where the illusion of absence masks a conscientious and caring presence? For critics who put the ad on the naughty list, lots of things!
Jennifer Rooney uses explicitly moral language and denounces the ad for “caving to people’s vices”. She sees it as validating two bad choices: prioritizing removed experiences of looking at life through devices and fetishizing recorded activities. “What would have had more impact,” she writes, “was if Apple made a commercial that said, ‘put down the iPhone this holiday season and actually look at, talk with, be with your family and friends.’”
Rooney’s criticism is all about timing. She worries about we experience holidays in 2013, and pines for a major technology company to promote a counter-cultural message. She wishes Apple would bolster the burgeoning “backlash against smartphone use that’s happening all around us.”
Over at The New York Post, Kyle Smith takes the cultural anxiety about smart phones “turning us into disconnected loners untethered to reality” a step further. He basically depicts the “Misunderstood” as self-serving corporate propaganda that obscures a recent history of large-scale, deleterious social engineering: “Apple knows it has turned us into iZombies, and has become defensive about it, releasing its own little movie arguing that there’s some upside to this depressing new reality.” Indeed, Smith even compares the effort to “mid-century effort by the tobacco industry to assuage fears about the safety of its products.”
And this brings us Brian Barrett’s take over at Gizmodo. Barrett argues that happy tears the family sheds after the big video reveal express relief that the protagonist “is not a monster” who, like nearly everyone else, has an “unfortunate default mode” of “hiding behind phones, inside apps”.
As someone who criticizes advertising for promoting Silicon Valley ideals over values that are truly in line with the good life, I’m deeply sympathetic to the folks who are skeptical of “Misunderstood”. Nevertheless, I believe Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction, has the best take on the commercial. Focusing on the high quality of the film the protagonist puts together and the various moments the protagonist does engage with his family, Pang is “less willing to project” his “own anxieties about Kids Today With Their Damn Smartphones,” and more inclined to see the ad as highlighting the value skillful photographers have for enhancing “collective memory.”
To push Pang’s point further, if the protagonist wasn’t working on a secret Santa surprise and could inform his family about what his project entailed, presumably everyone would be fine with the behavior. Secrecy, not techno-pathology, prevents public displays of etiquette from being offered. If only the young man could just say to concerned relatives, “Give a me moment while I edit grandpa,” all would be well.
Ads like “Misunderstood” are bound to cause controversy because they leave much to the imagination. We don’t know what happened prior to the events we’re shown and we don’t know what happens after. What if a slightly different version aired? What if it featured a narrator broadcasting the inner thoughts of a protagonist who felt bitter-sweat about deliberately sacrificing his own short-term personal enjoyment for the greater long-term good of his family?
More importantly, ads that place smart phones at the center of social and familial life are bound to be contentious because digital age etiquette is challenging and many of us are feeling existentially uneasy about the difficult judgment calls that coping requires. Not only are we sometimes sure what to do, but we’ve got good reasons to worry about corporations selling us an impoverished yet profitable vision of how to live. And that’s why talking about “Misunderstood” is the perfect holiday gift. We could all use some critical reflections on technology in our stockings.
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