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Monday with Mitch: Apple bites into holiday humanity

Misunderstood. It's a word we use to make ourselves feel better. It's a virtual anthem to teenagers. And it was the latest marketing maneuver by Apple, which sought to own Christmas this year in a way not even the Grinch imagined. No doubt you sa...

Mitch Albom
Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. (File / McClatchy Newspapers)

Misunderstood. It's a word we use to make ourselves feel better. It's a virtual anthem to teenagers.

And it was the latest marketing maneuver by Apple, which sought to own Christmas this year in a way not even the Grinch imagined.

No doubt you saw Apple's latest TV commercial (which actually was titled "Misunderstood." It ran all holiday season. And at 90 seconds, it was hard to miss. It depicted a family coming together for Christmas and one sweet-faced loner of a teenager (think the older brother from "Little Miss Sunshine") who was always on his iPhone. When the family unloaded the car, he was on the screen. When the family decorated the tree, he was on the screen. Sledding, skating, making snowmen -- he was on the screen. Nobody got too mad at him. Occasionally, family members teased him (a grandfather-type playfully tossed a towel in his face), but for the most part, the kid kept returning to his device, and by halfway through the spot, parents were thinking, "Hey, I know this kid. He's our middle one, right?"

But then came the kicker. With the family gathered in one room, the teenager turned off the TV, pressed something on his phone, and the big screen lit up with a video he had been making of family moments, behind the sparse and haunting singing of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

The images were deliberately moving -- children, family, snow angels, all seemingly shot by a professional cinematographer (which of course, the teen prodigy will one day be) -- and by the end, the whole family was crying and hugging the "misunderstood" teen, whose face is sweet enough to forgive a felony, let alone missing precious holiday moments while working on something clearly more important -- an iMovie of those moments.

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It was brilliant -- except for one thing. The movie wasn't more important.

And it isn't OK that you exit real life. Screens are not more vital than human connection. The whole ad would fall apart if you realized this.

But Apple banked you wouldn't.

By manipulating the images and making the movie version of the family Christmas seem even more emotional than the real thing, it played on the heartstrings of a country whose citizens want more and more to be the stars of their own films. Facebook. Instagram. YouTube. Reality TV. They all play into this.

And an iPhone is a portal to them all.

So Apple, perhaps sensing that holiday humanity might mean some pushback, cleverly launched a pre-emptive campaign, suggesting the teen you scold tomorrow may be creating something loving today.

Except, of course, he's not. The real-life teen is more likely texting a friend about how boring the family is or checking the latest YouTube video of a rock band dressed as foxes or playing "Angry Birds" or watching a season's worth of TV shows or any one of a thousand distractions that keep real life at bay.

But that doesn't sell iPhones.

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And when you realize Apple's purpose is to sell stuff -- not save Christmas -- you have, much to Apple's dismay, figured it out.

So perhaps, now in a near year, this ad could serve a purpose: Let's resolve not to do Apple's bidding. Instead, let's try the opposite. Let's vow to spend less time on a screen. Less cell phone. Less iPad. Less iPod. Less Droid. Less Xbox. Less BlackBerry. Less Galaxy. Less Mac.

And if you think I am overreacting to a TV ad, consider this: The average American apparently now spends more than five hours a day on a digital device, and 4½ hours with the TV on. If you work or study eight hours a day, sleep eight hours a night, and commute at all, what time is left actually living life?

Overreacting? Why do you think Apple spends what it takes to make a 90-second ad and run it everywhere? Its existence depends on people thinking virtual life is real life -- and that they're not missing anything by becoming an iZombie.

But we are missing something. Collectively, we already have missed lifetimes. An iPhone can't smile, hug, cry or share a memory. An iPhone can't bake, taste or pop champagne. An iPhone can't tell you the family stories -- no matter how clever an editing program you have.

So this year, try unplugging and just experiencing. Because, remember, if we agree with Apple that it's more important to record life than to live it, pretty soon all our holiday videos will look the same: a bunch of family members filming each other.

Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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