Dec 14

Apple holiday ad 2014: two ways to see it

Another year, another Apple holiday commercial. So, what do we think?

Nosing around the internet (and pestering friends and associates), my non-scientific small-sample analysis of The Song yields these results:

• Most people like it.
• Some people love it.
• Some people think it goes over the top into Hallmark territory.

And then the dose of reality — even among the people who like this ad the most, quite a few qualify their answer by saying “but it’s not as good as last year’s spot.”


Well, the truth is, when its ads are critiqued, Apple has it rougher than other companies. It is not only graded vs. its competitors — it’s graded vs. its own past. That’s what you get when your advertising is as legendary as your products.

And so, if we are to review this ad, it’s only fitting that we review it two different ways.

The Song vs. competitors’ ads: “A”

The Song is well crafted, and yes, laden with emotion. Excellent casting, acting and production values. Though it’s a living demo of Apple products, somehow it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like a mini-movie that shares a human moment and ends with a sweet Happy Holidays message. It brings a tear to many people’s eyes.

Though The Song may not be the greatest commercial in history, Samsung and Microsoft have made it feel that way by running some classic advertising dribble. I hope you’re sitting down for this.

You’re up first, Microsoft.

Here, Microsoft continues its “winning” strategy of comparing its Surface tablet to Apple’s Macbook Air. But you might not get that because once the singing starts, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. Hawking a product is the closest Microsoft can come to the spirit of the season. What we get is that deadly combination of unfunny and unconvincing.

With Microsoft stooping so low and Apple aiming so high, the stage is set for Samsung to swoop in and at least grab the #2 spot, right?

Incredibly, Samsung has actually found a way to sink beneath Microsoft. Just shows what a company can do when it really tries.

Concept-wise, Samsung’s holiday effort is more like Apple’s spot than Microsoft’s. Like The Song, it tells the story of real people putting the company’s technology to work. However, Samsung’s real people are as plastic as a Samsung Galaxy, and the spot is so ungracefully littered with products, it’s as if the entire spot was filmed in a Samsung warehouse.

So, relative to one another, Apple gets an A for The Song, while Microsoft and Samsung get stuck with an E. And that’s E for “embarrassment.”

The Song vs. Apple’s previous holiday ad: “B-“

Misunderstood set a new bar for emotional, human-understanding ads. It was a high-quality drama with a bold and risky storyline. The entire first half of the commercial was spent portraying the dark side of technology — the detached teenager. Then it surprised us with the twist. The kid was actually creating a gift that would capture the true meaning of the holidays for his family. This spot not only told a story, it had tension — which made the uplifting ending incredibly effective. Deservedly, Misunderstood quickly earned a place of honor in the Apple Ad Hall of Fame.

The Song has much of what we saw in Misunderstood, but it’s missing one thing: an edge. It’s a beautiful story, but has little tension or real drama. From the first frame, we see what the girl is doing. Instructive and inspiring, perhaps, but not riveting.

After my first viewing of Misunderstood, I let out an audible “holy cow.” I watched it a few times, liking it more each time, and then started sharing it with friends. Perhaps I’m just a cold-hearted bastard, but I didn’t have that experience with The Song. It’s more obvious. You can go through it frame by frame and note the many times it goes out of its way to tug at our heartstrings.

You don’t need psychic powers to understand where The Song came from. Obviously someone (or everyone) in the room said “hey, let’s do a human drama like we did last year.” The best of intentions — but it’s tough to follow a classic. (Just ask the people who created Lemmings.)

Apple’s holiday history

With an enthusiastic reaction to both Misunderstood and The Song, I get the feeling Apple is settling into a new holiday tradition.

Personally, I hope Apple doesn’t lock itself into any one approach going forward. It’s invigorating to see something new and unexpected every year, and Apple has a pretty rich history of giving us that.

There were some great holiday moments in the Mac vs. PC campaign. (Examples here and here.) And there was Will Ferrell having some Christmas fun as part of the Switcher campaign (here and here), even though these didn’t run on television. We really don’t need a tearjerker every year. This is the season for fun, emotion, or any combination thereof.

Misunderstood showed that Apple was still capable of grabbing us by the collar and taking us someplace new. The Song is wonderful, but not nearly as adventurous. It’s very sweet, and perfectly safe for family viewing — with no sharp edges.

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  • SuperMatt

    I love these types of ads from Apple. However, I despise those two annoying teenagers blabbing about the new iPhones in the iPhone 6 and 6+ ads. Those are the worst Apple ads I can recall. They’re putting out some of their worst ads ever alongside some of their best… weird.

  • Samanjj

    The teenagers are jimmy fallen and Justin Timberlake. Yeah I like them but I understand people who don’t.

  • I actually like this ad better than last year’s ad. Maybe because I think that recording is a better gift than a home video. Grandma will most likely listen to that song countless times, but I can’t imagine watching a home video countless times unless I’m the one editing it, haha. (Not at all a dig at last year’s ad, which was also beautiful, just saying I like this one more.)

  • Sandeep Shete

    This years ad has Apple’s usual “Don’t show the specs, show what we can do with it” aspect to it, but what I found more interesting it is that this year’s concept allowed Apple to compare technologies from two different generations. There was old recording technology and new one. (Even more interesting is the fact that both of them were used to express emotions). I am not sure if that was intentional or not. But it was very good touch.