2020 holiday ad: Apple vs. Apple

Life can be so cruel.

Pity poor Apple. All year, its products compete head-to-head against those from other tech companies. But when its big holiday ad goes up, it must compete with itself—forever haunted by the Ghost of Great Apple Holiday Ads Past.

So how does the 2020 Tierra Whack ad compare?

Not particularly well. Thank you for the entertainment, Apple, but you forgot the parts that made your previous holiday ads so memorable.

You didn’t relate to the joys and sorrows that come with being human. You didn’t express the joy you get by helping people connect emotionally. You didn’t celebrate your core values, which are so relevant during the holiday season.

More specifically…

Where’s the holiday?

This isn’t a holiday ad—it’s a product ad. Remove a few holiday lights at the start and it could run any time of the year.

Where’s the story?

Apple’s classic holiday ads have often taken us on a journey. They told a story. They had ups and downs. They drew us in with a message that resonated in this special season. This year, the story is MIA.

Where’s the heart?

A well crafted story logically leads to an emotional message at the end, like “Open your heart to everyone” (2016), “Love” (2015) or “Move someone this holiday” (2017). This year’s message? “The magic of mini.” How inspirational.

It’s a sales pitch

In the absence of a human message, this ad simply wants you to buy or gift a HomePod mini. The ad creators kept the sales pitch going to the very end, with the “Apple as gift” logo that first appeared in last year’s ad.

It’s a music video

Hats off to Tierra for getting Apple to pay for a high-visibility, big-budget music video. It’s pretty darn good. But when Apple enticed Stevie Wonder to sing in 2015’s ad, in a duet with Andra Day, it was a very different idea. That ad celebrated family holiday time—this ad celebrates Tierra.

Digital overload

Special effects are no substitute for an idea. This year’s effort seems to be built on the calculation that Celebrity + Music + Special Effects = Great Ad. Previous Apple holiday ads without any effects have connected far more deeply.


Tierra says “turn it way up” to her full-size HomePod, which instantly transforms into a cute little HomePod mini. Guess that means the mini actually outperforms the maxi? Be great if that was true.

A rich history

This year’s holiday ad gave me a new appreciation for the ones that came before.

2007 Get A Mac
These animated versions of Justin Long and John Hodgman were part of the mega-successful Mac campaign. The pair managed to send a holiday message while maintaining the characters’ quirky relationship. A product ad, yes, but charmingly human—just like the campaign itself.

2013 Misunderstood
My personal all-time favorite. This ad managed to address a serious social issue—teens becoming withdrawn due to technology addiction—while celebrating the power of technology to bring people closer. Perfect for the brand, relevant,  uplifting, heartwarming … and brave.

2014 The Song
A young woman uses technology to bridge the generation gap in a most remarkable way. A genuine tear-jerker, Apple-style.

2015 Someday At Christmas
Stevie Wonder and Andra day team up for an emotional family holiday, offering up a fresh new version of Wonder’s song.

2016 Frankie’s Christmas
One of the oddest holiday ads Apple has done, but one of my favorites for that very reason. A gentle version of Victor Frankenstein’s creation tries in vain to make nice with the villagers but finally succeeds when a young girl steps in to help.

2017 Sway
Music magically transforms a snowy day for a young woman and man sharing a pair of AirPods.

2018 Share Your Gifts
An animated ad in which a young girl, frustrated in her creative attempts, accidentally shares her work with the world—bringing joy to others, and to herself.

2019 The Surprise
Another tear-jerker, effective despite its similarity to Misunderstood. A pair of restless young girls secretly put together an iPad presentation that transforms the holiday for their widower grandfather.

And this year’s ad fits where?

I get that Apple is no longer the scrappy underdog it was ages ago. It’s far bigger, more successful, and speaks to a huge multinational, multiethnic audience. Of course marketing has to change accordingly.

That said, holiday time is special. It’s eternal. Apple has the stage and along with that comes a terrific marketing opportunity.

It’s the perfect time to celebrate the core of the brand—technology with humanity. Unfortunately, this year Apple has chosen to give us a music video.

It’s a bit of fun, but it’s about one millimeter deep.