Apple’s Newest Ad is a Subtle Work of Emotional Magic

Welcome to 'The Archives'

Remember those big boxes of unsorted photos that ’90s-you would find in closets, guiltily sift through, then give up on? Smartphone use has made that problem so much worse: Because it’s so easy to take photos and store them in the cloud, we’ve got so many pictures on hand that the mere thought of going through them is overwhelming.

But our tech overlords are nothing if not benign. Much like Google Photos, Apple’s iOS 10 now has a function called Memories, which curates the “best” images from a time period, then weds them to music to create emotional films.

That’s pretty magical—a quality Apple reminds us of whenever it gets the chance. Last year’s spot “Balloons” sold the brand’s expressive messaging feature using a red balloon, building on its “Practically Magic” platform. It also helped mark Apple’s shift from clean, utilitarian spots to more emotional work that visually references stories from our culture.

Its latest ad for Memories, titled “The Archives,” continues down this path.

Like “Balloons,” something about “The Archives” smacks of fable. The spot follows a solitary archivist in a beautiful building, the kind of place that feels untouched by time and pregnant with secrets. Old film reels are stacked on shelves, and long file cabinets pull out of shallow walls.

It’s a space literally filled with memories—photos and negatives that move on their own, silent snapshots of life playing out under the man’s gentle gaze. In silence, he curates and frames, pressing letters from an old printing press, editing films from a device operated by a foot pump.

The final result, a Memories film called “Together,” appears as if by magic on a mother’s phone, elsewhere in the world. As images of her young family flit by to Lykke Li’s poignant rendition of Unchained Melody (which still makes us think of Ghost), she smiles, then clicks on yet another Memory, setting the archivist to work all over again.

Often in smartphone ads, real footage is used to demonstrate the strength and clarity of a given service. The memories shown here are no different.

Apple says the images come from a real Spanish couple that fell in love 10 years ago, while working on a play. After a few months, they moved in together, realized they shared less than they realized and struggled to find common ground. The latter was found when their two children were born—something that taught them what love is really about. Their iPhones captured years of family photos.

This particular story isn’t seen in “The Archives,” but it can perhaps be felt as the Memory comes to its natural close. A beautifully kept and curated moment can add its own emotional layers to photos we’re fond of. Our Archivist’s treatment of a young family’s life isn’t just a showcase of happiness; it’s a reminder that happiness is hard-won … and the moments that compose it are fleeting.

The actual Memories feature is obviously not run by a kindly old man who cares more about strangers’ photos than even they do. It’s run instead by an algorithm, one that probably gets things wrong more often than the opposite. Still, there’s something charming in the idea that a piece of technology is being operated by a kind of secret Santa, tinkering away in a workshop of dreams.

Of course there’s irony to Apple selling the “magic” of technological prowess by giving it artisanal humanity. But while we recognize this is just a fairy tale, it’s compelling that, for us, “magic” is still characterized by a benevolent person hiding just out of view.