Parents everywhere have a love/hate relationship with their kids' screen time.
As I write this, it's Saturday morning and my boys are playing Rocket League on the PlayStation (a game that scrambles the brain, truly) while my daughter is watching Netflix. Leave them too long and they'll be pickled for the day, but an hour of quiet writing time is obviously pretty precious and delightful.
That inherent tension over screen time provides the atmospheric backdrop to Apple's 2019 holiday commercial, released online today (as a three-minute film) and airing on TV tonight (as a :60). But the piece has a broader story to tell—a poignant, bittersweet tale of holiday travel for a family grieving the loss of a beloved grandmother.
The holidays are hectic at the best of times, of course, but here, the crush of sadness is making everything that much more overwhelming. The trip to Grandpa's is more trying than usual. And once there, a pall hangs over the house. Grandpa is bewildered by his loss, and his granddaughters, usually a joy to him, are more of an irritation. Mom and Dad navigate the waves of grief, and the challenge of elder care, the best they can. And they get through it, in part, with help from technology—an iPad, mostly, which keeps their daughters generally busy and out of the way.
Parents will surely cringe a bit, in recognition if not entirely in empathy, at the deployment of the digital babysitter (even though you can't blame these parents one bit, given the circumstance). But there turns out to be more to the story:
Created by TBWA\Media Arts Lab and Smuggler director Mark Molloy, "The Surprise" is quite reminiscent of "Misunderstood," the celebrated 2013 Apple holiday ad that ended up winning the Emmy for best commercial that year. In that spot, a teen who seemed glumly engrossed in his iPhone turned out to be similarly making a film for the family to enjoy.
Where "Misunderstood," directed by Lance Acord, featured effortless storytelling with almost no dialogue, "The Surprise" includes more prompts that set up the twist ending.
Each time the parents hand off the iPad, they get a line of dialogue ("Just watch something or play a game," "Daddy downloaded some movies for you," "Keep busy and don't annoy Grandpa") that makes it clear they assume the girls are passively consuming entertainment on it. The signals aren't so blatant that the ending feels totally telegraphed. Still, the spot doesn't have quite the same purity of visual cues.
It has its own charms, though. Grief is a complicated emotion for a holiday ad, but from a storytelling perspective, it enhances a common holiday theme—the divide between innocent children and disillusioned grownups. ("Misunderstood" worked so well partly because the main character embodied both.) With its backdrop of pain, the turn to joy at the end of "The Surprise" feels especially rich.
The double meaning of the line "Make someone's holiday" is a nice touch, too. And while clearly not as musically driven as last year's masterful "Share Your Gifts" spot with the Billie Eilish track, the song this time—"Married Life," from composer Michael Giacchino's Oscar- and Grammy-winning orchestral score for the Pixar movie Up—provides a playful, upbeat vibe that keeps the spot from getting too dark.
Whether kids of this age actually use the iPad in such creative ways is debatable. It's certainly possible to do so. And I suppose at this time of year—and within the life of this family in particular—the possibilities are everything.
Agency: TBWA\Media Arts Lab
Production Company: Smuggler Films
Director: Mark Molloy