The Story Behind AT&T's Disturbing Phone-Safety Ad

'Close to Home' Had Viewers Shaking in Their Seats

By Published on .

Last week, AT&T and BBDO New York shook viewers in their seats when they unveiled the latest film for the "It Can Wait" campaign, which cautions cellphone owners about the dangers of mobile-phone use and driving.

"Close to Home," starts out quietly depicting six different people going about their day. A boy takes a spin on his bike, a father stops to get gas and purchases a lottery ticket on a whim, a woman rallies herself and her daughter as they prepare to go out on an errand. All is normal and uneventful until the mother, while driving with her child in the back seat, quickly checks a social-media post on her phone. The fleeting distraction leads to devastating consequences -- a fatal car crash that leaves onlookers -- and viewers agasp. The film is difficult and disturbing to watch -- who among us hasn't chanced a quick glance at our phones? The campaign drives the point home even further with an online virtual-reality simulator that throws the viewer directly into a cellphone-related crash.

In the campaign's five-year history, AT&T hasn't been shy about communicating the horrifying reality of mobile-phone use and driving accidents. Two years ago, the agency worked with BBDO and director Werner Herzog to create a frightening documentary that showed how texting-and-driving accidents damage the lives not just of the victims, but also the perpetrators.

This new ad, however, is meant to remind viewers that they too can easily be the protagonists of such tragic stories.

"We wanted it to be personally relevant and we wanted viewers to see themselves in it," said Michelle Kuckelman, executive director-brand management, AT&T. "We had to take out the situation in which we're asking consumers to respond to individuals who had gone through this and rather, put the audience themselves in the middle of this experience,"

AT&T research found that while the general audience, namely, consumers in their 30s, had agreed with messages from the previous ads, they were "rationalizing, giving reasons why they could [use their phones and drive] safely, whether it's because they're an experienced driver, or doing it at a stop sign," among other things, said Ms. Kuckelman. Moreover, it showed that not just texting or email, but social media and other phone activities were contributing to accidents.

"The core idea was how to dramatize how one split second, one tiny glance can have a lifetime of consequences," said BBDO ECD Matt MacDonald. "From that kernel of an idea that the team arrived at this beautiful film, this script of pulling back and showing the devastating consequences in graphic detail."

We've seen such cautionary tales before, but the storytelling and craftsmanship of the ad were key in making it so powerful. To weave the story together, BBDO tapped Anonymous Content's Frederic Planchon, known for his artful, detailed direction that packs a strong emotional punch.

"The agency brief started with, 'think of this not as an advertising campaign but an opportunity to save lives,'" Mr. Planchon said. "They wanted the tone to be raw and emotional."

The moment of distraction -- when the mom glances down at her phone -- is the turning point of the ad. Until then, the pacing is real-time and the viewer is able to follow along as if part of the story. Thereafter, everything happens in slow motion, and then in reverse, a decision meant "to make the viewer think about the danger and consequences of an insignificant moment of distraction," said Mr. Planchon.

The agency's decision to show the aftermath in slow motion was "strong, but not that easy to achieve properly because it's been done before," he said. "So I was quite keen to show first the crash in normal speed, how it happens in a millisecond without any warning. When we go to slo-mo, I wanted it to stay mundane and horrific, and not glorify or over-dramatize it by the camera angles. I wanted to show the value of what it is destroyed."

That, however, posed a significant technical challenge because "we wanted to achieve a real crash and not use CGI," said Mr. Planchon. That meant capturing everything in-camera in a single take. "With the multiplicity of the points of views, it can become quite technical."

"Filmically, staying real and honest are important for me," he said. "For me, as a director, there's a fundamental difference between touching an audience and being manipulative. Being raw and honest is key, by a series of simple statements that say these things happen -- they could happen to you."

Indeed, the team took great caution to ensure that viewers could see themselves in the mom's shoes. "We were really careful to make sure you had empathy for the woman and you understood how it could have happened," said Mr. MacDonald. "We don't demonize anybody in the situation, and I think that makes it more powerful, more likely that you'll change your own behavior."

According to Ms. Kuckelman, since it launched in 2010, the campaign has seen some meaningful results. It's helped drive awareness of the dangers of texting while driving to about 90% for all viewers the client surveyed, and research incorporating data from the Departments of Transportation in Texas, Kentucky and other states suggested a correlation between "It Can Wait" campaign activity and a reduction in crashes.

Anecdotally, the new film "Close to Home" has resonated strongly with audiences as well. It literally "broke" Advertising Age and Creativity's sites early last week when we first posted it. Shares via Creativity from the past week alone at press time exceeded 900,000.