#33: Misunderstood

A few nights ago my family and I were having dinner at a bar in Cairns, and in between coverage of the England v. Australia cricket series, on came Apple’s “Misunderstood” holiday ad, which I first saw friends tweeting about before I left for my trip. Just this morning, after I signed into our hotel’s wifi here in Sydney, I was redirected to Apple’s homepage and I watched the ad again. I’ve seen “Misunderstood” in its entirety maybe six or seven times, and if I were to cut together a video of my own family’s holiday, it’d have these clips: a tour boat shot of my brother staring out at the water with a beach towel over his head and back; an underwater shot of my mom waving a hand over fauna in the reef; Dad pretending to take a bite out of a live mud crab; a selfie with a koala; quick cuts of my brother sleeping in various places; lots and lots of seafood.

It’s a testament to the power of the ad, a message about a medium that produces messages but which is itself the message, delivered through a medium which has its own message and the rest of this is going to be about smartphones and television and advertising and I have to warn you: it’s going to be long and very messy. I’m trying to work through the tangles by writing this to you, so think of it as a first draft of an essay.

“Misunderstood” is in the tradition of Volkswagen’s “Think Small” ads – emblematic of advertising’s “Creative Revolution” in the Sixties – in that it takes a perceived weakness in the product and turns it into a strength.

“Misunderstood” leads with screen-absorption and partial attention, which trigger a judgment – how sad that he’s missing out on the holidays! – then achieves an emotional judo that validates Apple’s existence. We learn there is a reason Loner Kid is glued to his phone, and that reason is he’s been working on a gift for his family. We have mistaken tragic distraction for creative heroism. We’re the judgmental assholes. Our hearts melt.

One difference, though, between VW in 1959 and Apple in 2013, is that VW was an underdog making a statement in a market of goliaths – the showy, boat-like Don Draper Cadillacs – whereas Apple is the market leader. Its competition is itself, is the very form of distraction that is a largely unforeseen consequence of the products that Apple pioneered. All planned marketing is self-conscious, but “Misunderstood” might be Apple – or any large corporation – at its most self-aware.

The beginning of “Misunderstood” strikes us as sad not because it is universally sad, but because we have been conditioned by our cultural narratives – which come from sources like Advertising and Hollywood – to view it as sad. Our films tell us “live in the moment” and “journey not destination,” and we’ve heard variations of this so many times that even acknowledging the cliche has become cliche. But the irony of these statements is they’re typically delivered as the film’s denouement, ie. the payoff, the destination. We taste the message but we eat the structure.

“Misunderstood’s” power comes not from it telling us to put away our phones and live in the moment – to do so would strike us as disingenuous – but from showing (though not necessarily acknowledging) the bittersweet complexity of the issue. For all the moments we are buried in our screens generally dicking around, from time to time we use these screens to create things that are expressions of love. And love, in this case, is Loner Kid taking himself out of the present moment so that he can give an awareness of the now-past moments to the rest of this family, in the form of a movie shot and edited on his phone and played on an Apple TV and set to Cat Power’s Charlie Brown-like rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

It’s worth reiterating: Loner Kid made a Christmas video of the same Christmas. He experiences the holiday through a screen, presents his experience of it through another screen, all of which we watch through our screens, and the ad’s resulting message is that it’s okay to be glued to your phone’s screen when you should be spending time with family, as long as there is a payoff at the end. Note the “should”. The ad doesn’t refute the idea that we should be living in the moment; it says, If we can’t live in the moment, then we might as well make the most of it. The loss is worth the gain – and it has a better soundtrack, too.

I don’t think this is necessarily right or wrong or good or bad, but more the way things are. And I’m trying to understand both why they are and how they are. You might think I’m reading too much into it, that it’s just Apple trying to do something generous and different from your usual end of the year sale buy!buy!buy! ads. Or you might say that it’s another example of a clever advertiser manipulating people into buying things they don’t need.

I’d like to write to you about these viewpoints, about intents and outcomes, but it’s almost midnight here in Sydney. I can hear my dad snoring, my mom and brother are trying to sleep, and it’s taken me so long to finish this Sunday update that it’s turned into a Monday one. So I’ll leave it at this, for now.