The best ad of Super Bowl weekend comes from Apple (and it's not in the Super Bowl)

While Microsoft offers the promise of a great AI future for Super Bowl weekend, Apple takes time to chart a different course.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Technology brings you into another world.

Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/ZDNET

It's time to huddle around our screens.

It's time to celebrate a quintessential pastime that involves men, large and less large, pushing each other to the limits.

No, I'm not talking about an overnight Meta hackathon. I'm talking about the Super Bowl, the one time of year when Americans express strong opinions about ads -- many for tech companies -- and the role of football as a backdrop.

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It's always a moment for national debate.

As we approach the big game -- my colleague Steven Vaughan-Nichols has a fine Super Bowl streaming guide -- a big debate has revolved around Apple's Vision Pro and how it may affect human life. 

Will it revolutionize the way we work and play? Will it increase feelings of loneliness? Will Apple have a Vision Pro ad in the Super Bowl? (Well, Apple Music will certainly be there, in an ad starring, goodness, Tim Cook.)

The future is currently a hot topic.

Microsoft's offering for Sunday's big show is an anthemic vision for professionals. Or, rather, for those aspiring to be. 

With rousing music and aggressive spirit, Microsoft touts what young people -- oh, they're all young people -- will be able to achieve with Microsoft's new AI companion, Copilot.

It's all very persuasive and moving -- and oddly reminiscent of another Microsoft campaign, ultimately quashed by Bill Gates in the last century, called "Where Do You Want To Go Today?"

I can imagine many dreamers being utterly entranced by this Microsoft ad, as they watch the Super Bowl and its superhuman cast of characters.

Yet, as you parse the Super Bowl ad merits of Microsoft raising your hopes and Uber Eats fighting DoorDash, please spare a thought for a different ad Apple released specially for this weekend.

No, not for the Super Bowl but for Chinese New Year.

Fifteen minutes of contemplation

It so happens that Chinese New Year falls on February 10, the day before the Chiefs and 49ers enjoy their own little festival of joy. And I fancy Apple's Chinese New Year ad may have more to say than all the Super Bowl ads put together.

This, you see, is a 15-minute-long tale of a little girl called Wei who believes she's imperfect, but suddenly discovers she has superpowers. She can become something different -- more importantly, in her mind, someone different.

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"If I can become everything, I'll be the most popular girl around," she tells her grandfather. "Everyone would like me."

Don't we all want everyone to like us? Don't we grow up with that desperation ingrained in our souls?

Wei believes she's not as attractive as models in magazines, yet as she comes to terms with her own power to become anyone she likes, she suddenly concludes: "I want to be alone."

The full force of technology

It's a temporary feeling. 

When she grows up, she leaves her village and heads for the big city. That's when she confronts the full force of technology and, specifically, social media.

Who is she really? How should she be? When you're on the likes of Instagram or TikTok, you can become anyone you want, so Wei begins to deal with life's obstacles by using her superpowers to become someone else, many someone elses indeed.

For us mere mortals, technology gives us a little of that superpower too.

Wei finds her shapeshifting so much fun that, when her grandad calls, she doesn't bother answering.

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Her shapeshifting -- and the technology that disseminates her new selves -- is far more useful in offering her ego trips. Who needs dull voyages down memory lane?

When grandad comes to see her, she denies she's who she really is. Yet, once he's gone, she finally begins to realize what her shapeshifting superpower, coupled with social media ubiquity, has done to her. She realizes that she's lost touch with her genuine self.

Yes it's Apple, but it's still thoughtful

This little film -- naturally all shot on an iPhone 15 Pro Max with a stellar film crew -- offers the notion that if you can't be perfect, you might as well be yourself, because that's the best path to happiness.

Some might find excessive schmaltz in all this. Some might even find it painfully dated, a mundane contrast with Microsoft's forward-looking adventure.

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The ad is, though, an elegant reminder that for all the approbation people seek in the digital world -- and some research now suggests that young people find far more there than in the real world -- there's (ultimately) a deeper joy in simple, real-world self-acceptance.

I know this isn't the sort of thing that Super Bowl ads will often offer you. And I know, too, that Apple has played its own role in making it easier to leave your true self behind and disappear into that, well, other world online. Apple Vision Pro offers, perhaps, the highest level of personal disappearance yet.

It's still uplifting, though, to see a tech company acknowledge at least a little of the personal disturbances its own products contribute to engendering.

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No, it's not a beer company telling you a joke. It's not Uber Eats and DoorDash fighting to see which celebrities you like best. It's not Microsoft telling you its new AI will shapeshift your future. It's not even Apple getting its CEO to act.

But perhaps this Apple ad will make some people feel better about their true selves and isn't that what all tech companies should strive to do?

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