I remember pressing my fingers into my eyelids, as if the pressure might help me focus harder, tapping into the memory I couldn’t quite access. I couldn’t exactly remember my grandmother’s voice, and I wanted to. Badly. Sure, I remembered select phrases or moments, like the “Pretty, Pretty Baby” song she’d sing to soothe my little sister when she cried, but my grandmother died of lung cancer when I was 10, and 20 years later, my memories were as weathered as the VHS tapes of her we’d kept boxed-up in the garage—crackly and out of focus.
That memory—of trying so hard to remember things exactly as they were, every detail, every nuance—came thundering to mind the second I saw Google’s “Loretta” ad during the Super Bowl. The 90-second spot, which is inspired (and voiced) by an employee’s 85-year-old grandfather, follows a man’s search to keep his wife’s memory alive after she’s passed. You watch his queries shift from advice on “how not to forget” to pulling up photos of their years together, recalling the name of an Alaskan town where they vacationed, even her final admonishment to “get out of the dang house” after she’s gone. It’s the type of ad that’ll make you ugly cry into your buffalo chicken dip, because it’s so specific, yet so universally relatable—and it also reveals how tech is changing the way we process loss.
“Many Americans now need the internet and social media to process grief in a way that is inconceivable to previous generations,” said Elizabeth Meyer Karansky, co-founder of Farewelling, a podcast and funeral-planning service designed to help people cope with death. “The internet has given us access to information, and we are all absorbing [it] in areas that were previously unknown—death and dying.”
When someone passes, we have more than VHS tapes and letters; there are streams of text message threads, tweets and Instagram DMs. An estimated 510,000 comments are posted to Facebook every minute, and roughly 300 million photos are uploaded each day, according to digital marketing firm Zephoria. We’re producing a lot of content online, giving us so many more memories to scroll through, all a phone’s reach away. Suddenly, even subtle nuances of a person are preserved. When my other grandmother died a few months ago, I could pull up her favorite bran muffin recipe on Facebook Messenger, reading through her commentary as I baked it. If I’m having a rough day, I can pull up an encouraging text she sent; it’s not the same, but it’s comfort, made convenient.
The ad represents a larger cultural shift, too. Younger generations are considered digital natives—and millennials are increasingly being considered the “death positive” generation, being more open to having conversations around death and planning their funerals early in life. As Vox reported, nearly 16 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 to 39 felt that people should pre-plan their funerals before they’re 40—roughly twice as many as those over 60. (Similarly, a small study of 84 millennials found that 54 percent have already had the end-of-life convo with a family member.) That openness has given way to podcasts like Farewelling, as well as services like Lantern, a checklist to help people plan a funeral, and groups like the Order of the Good Death, a death-positive organization founded by YouTuber and funeral home owner Caitlin Doughty (who, by the way, has amassed 970,000 subscribers through her “Ask a Mortician” series).
“I started in this industry over a decade ago, and nobody spoke about death. Now, not only is it all over the media, but it is often in candid conversations,” Meyer Karansky said, attributing this to the fact that our society’s become more open in general, and that people today seem to be more involved in decision-making and personalizing their experiences, including how they’re remembered.
The ad becomes all the more poignant in light of basketball legend Kobe Bryant’s passing. “I believe dads were hit strongly by his loss, and they were the ones who saw this ad,” she added. “Kobe's loss affected men out there who may think about death or choose to try to deny it. Either way, it is rarely spoken about among this group.”
Clearly, Google’s commercial struck a chord with people—it’s had more than 12.4 million views since it debuted on YouTube, averaging about 154,400 views an hour, according to YouTube analytics firm VidIQ. It’s also garnered more than 2,900 comments on YouTube, forming a source of catharsis in a space that’s notoriously known for trolls.
“It hasn’t even been two years into this widowed life and I’m already forgetting,” one commenter wrote.
“My mother passed away Tuesday, and I'm staying with my dad right now, helping him to adjust to life without Mom. My dad and I were brought to tears by this commercial,” another added.
Of course, watching the ad brings up the other side of our always-connected world: How much we’re willing to share online. As many have pointed out, there are also privacy concerns to sharing that much data. And my inner cynic is all too aware that Super Bowl ads are a multi-million-dollar investment designed to leverage your emotions, so you buy whatever the brand’s selling (in this case, Google Assistant-controlled devices). At the end of the day, Google is a business, but the ad itself sparks an interesting conversation: How do you honor a person’s life, and what does that look like for you? How much of your own life do you want to share, and how do you want it to be remembered and saved?