In Apple’s Poignant Holiday Ad, an iPad Offers a Family Far More Than Distraction

The brand gets real about the toils of travel and the gift of keeping memories alive

a young girl looking despondent
Apple's 2019 holiday ad surprises with a touching story. Apple
Headshot of David Griner

When it comes to ads about holiday travel, most skip past all the messy and frustrating bits, jumping instead right to the perfectly inviting family home waiting at the other end of the journey.

Apple takes a different—and far more realistic—approach in its 2019 holiday ad, “The Surprise.” Filmed in a real home (not a soundstage) and starring real sisters, the 3-minute spot tells the story of family’s visit to a grandfather who recently lost his wife.

Visually, it’s a dramatic departure from last year’s meticulously animated spot “Share Your Gifts.” But thematically, Apple fans might note quite a few similarities between the new ad and one of the brand’s most beloved holiday spots, 2013’s “Misunderstood,” which featured a quiet teen who wasn’t as detached from his family as they believed.

This year’s ad is focused on the iPad, which plays a central role in the family’s holiday experience. But what begins as a convenient distraction becomes something far more powerful in the hands of the two young girls.

The ad was created by longtime Apple partner TBWA\Media Arts Lab and directed by Mark Molloy, who was also behind Apple’s comedic coworker caper “The Underdogs” earlier this year. Molloy also directed 2018’s “Homework,” which also centered on a group of young people and their creative use of an iPad.

“The Surprise” tackles a few aspects of the holidays that most ads would typically avoid. First is the stress and frustrations of travel, a reality we all know well but don’t usually expect to find being depicted so directly in a commercial.

But another central theme is one that weighs more heavily on those who’ve experienced it: the loss of a loved one in the year leading up to the holidays. The ad conveys the complex mix of emotions that come with such an experience, such as the innocent-but-difficult questions from children, the comforting explanations of parents and the deep sadness that a grieving spouse keeps just below the surface.

Shot at a home in Vancouver, the ad stars two real-life sisters, though actors portray their parents and grandfather. Over the course of the shoot, the group grew to know each other, a process that’s also captured in the ad thanks to the fact it was shot in chronological order.

The emotional closing scene isn’t just a surprise for the viewers. The actors also weren’t shown the iPad presentation and videos until the scene was shot, and the reactions we see in the spot—including the tears—were the real initial responses the actors had to the footage.

Here’s a look back at 2013’s “Misunderstood,” which wasn’t a direct point of reference for the new ad but certainly shares a thematic legacy of illustrating how Apple products can bring together families in ways they don’t expect.

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@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."