Anatomy of an Ad: Behind the scenes of AT&T’s haunting ‘Close to Home’

Last month, AT&T unveiled a powerful short film called ‘Close to Home’ that showed how one seemingly innocuous glance at your cell phone while driving can have astronomical consequences. Minda Smiley spoke with AT&T’s executive director of integrated brand marketing Michelle Kuckelman and executive creative director at BBDO Matt MacDonald to find out more about how the campaign’s strategy has evolved over the years and why they wanted to create an ad that teaches viewers a lesson without preaching to them.

At first, it’s hard to tell exactly where AT&T’s four-minute ‘Close to Home’ video is going. It starts out a bit slow, showing a young boy riding his bike around his suburban neighborhood. It then switches to a mother and daughter who are about to head out the door, the little girl bargaining with her mom about how many dolls she can bring along with her.

Other characters are slowly introduced as the ad progresses, including a man buying a lottery ticket at a local convenience store and a woman hosing the grass in her front lawn. The one thing that connects these different people is that they’re just going about their ordinary – even uneventful – days.

Yet the foreboding music playing in the background prompts viewers to keep watching all the way to the traumatic ending, when the mother who was introduced at the beginning of the film peeks down at her cell phone to see who has liked a picture she posted of her daughter earlier in the day. Moments later a fatal crash ensues in the middle of a quiet suburban street. The collision is then played backwards in slow-motion along with the looks of shock and terror on onlookers’ faces, with the message being that even a quick glimpse away from the road can have dire effects on many lives.

Created by BBDO New York, the video is the latest instalment in AT&T’s ‘It Can Wait’ campaign that launched five years ago to warn drivers of the dangers of using their cell phones behind the wheel.

The company’s executive director of integrated brand marketing Michelle Kuckelman tells us that with ‘Close to Home,’ the company hopes to raise awareness around the fact that it’s not only texting while driving that causes accidents, but also social media, email, videos, and selfies.

When ‘It Can Wait’ initially launched in 2010, it was primarily focused around getting teenagers to realize the dangers of texting and driving. Yet as new social platforms and cell phone capabilities have popped up, behaviors have changed and the campaign has been forced to evolve its strategy and target a different audience.

“In the last year we’ve noticed through research though that it isn’t just texting,” Kuckelman says. “We’ve focused the call to action to just keep your eyes on the road and not on your phone because it’s not really specific to texting.”

Because of this, says BBDO executive creative director BBDO Matt MacDonald, the original brief involved finding a way to really broaden the campaign to illustrate this issue and make people recognize that these behaviors are just as much of a problem, if not more insidious.

“We looked at a few different approaches but settled on this one of really trying to tell the story of how a seemingly innocent split-second glance, could have a lifetime of consequences for everyone involved,” he says. “It’s not just the perpetrator and it’s not just the victim. Everybody who witnesses the accident is touched in some way.”

He adds that the creative team was careful not the cast the mother in a negative light.

“We didn’t want to blame the victim here as the person who made the mistake. We wanted the audience to feel like they could see themselves in her position."

Past videos for the campaign have been more focused around individuals speaking directly to the camera about their personal experiences with cell-phone related collisions. According to Kuckelman, the company wanted to create a more immersive experience that would put people in the same position as those in the film.

“What we saw was that a lot of the adults, which is what we’re targeting this year, kind of felt like ‘that’s really sad, that’s a terrible thing to happen, I acknowledge it’s dangerous, but I would never do that specific thing,’” she says. “And so the goal this year was to kind of take out any other individual and immerse the audience into this visceral, slow-motion accident because it’s really hard to pull yourself out of a glance in the aftermath.”

To do this, BBDO New York worked with director Frederic Planchon, from production company Anonymous Content, to achieve what MacDonald calls the “visual firepower needed to bring this to life.”

“We talked to a few different directors and we went with Frederic because he really brought the best balance of heart, emotion and integrity to his approach. He just had this amazing mix of heart and technical prowess that we felt like he was the best one to pull it off,” he says.

It took about two or three times to pull off the collision, according to MacDonald.

“It wasn’t an arduous production, it was just technically difficult and it took a lot of time. Safety was a paramount concern but the crew did an amazing job, they were really dedicated and they brought it home,” he says.

The video has struck a chord with many people around the world since its launch in mid-July, with multiple shares on social media and more than four million views on YouTube. According to AT&T, ‘It Can Wait’ campaign over the past five years has helped drive awareness of the dangers of texting while driving to about 90 per cent for all audiences surveyed, and data from the Departments of Transportation in states including Texas, Kentucky, and Illinois suggests a correlation between campaign activities and a reduction in crashes.

MacDonald said the strong response and the individual promises people have made to no longer engage in these behaviors while driving after seeing the ad has been the most heartening aspect for him.

“We saw a photograph on Twitter of one mom who put a sign ‘It Can Wait’ on her dashboard to remind her not to do it. Another mom blogger wrote about how she and her husband sat down and wrote contracts to each other,” he says.

While Kuckelman expected the video to do well because she thought it was so well done, she notes that she has been a bit surprised to see such great click-through and watch-through rates for a four-minute video.

“As a marketer, there is always the question of ‘What’s the right amount of time?'

"We just landed on the right amount of time to tell the story.”

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