Marketing’s Changemakers: how AT&T evolves ‘It Can Wait’ to keep it relevant

Welcome to Marketing’s Changemakers, a series from The Drum that tells the stories of brands trying to change the world in ways both big and small. Here, we speak with AT&T’s assistant vice president of corporate brand marketing Ryan Luckey about ‘It Can Wait,’ the company’s distracted driving awareness campaign.

For the past eight years, AT&T has made it its mission to decrease the number of car accidents caused by distracted driving.

The brand’s ongoing ‘It Can Wait’ campaign began in 2010, just three years after the first iPhone came out. At the time, the dangers of texting while driving were becoming increasingly apparent: a study published in 2010 by the University of North Texas Health Science Center found that texting while driving resulted in an estimated 16,000 fatalities in the US from 2001 to 2007.

It was at that time that AT&T’s senior leadership decided to create a companywide effort to raise awareness of texting and driving. According to Luckey, it was initially focused on AT&T employees and the company’s retail stores, but quickly turned into a mass advertising campaign spanning print, radio, TV and online advertising.

The campaign’s first TV spots, primarily targeted toward young drivers, featured real stories of people whose lives were ended or altered because of a text sent behind the wheel.

“We did a lot of research to figure out what kind of messages would resonate well with consumers. The aha moment was when we asked people to read on their phones the last text [they] sent. The follow-up question was, ‘is that worth dying over?’ It was very much a breakthrough of people having a high level of awareness that this is a real danger,” says Luckey.

In 2013, AT&T partnered with director Werner Herzog to create a documentary featuring both victims and perpetrators who’ve been involved in accidents due to texting while driving. According to AT&T, the film was distributed to more than 40,000 high schools nationwide and hundreds of safety organizations and government agencies. The documentary, created with help from BBDO New York, currently has more than three million views on YouTube.

Changing with the times

Five years into ‘It Can Wait,’ AT&T began to shift the messaging behind the campaign. With smartphones becoming more ubiquitous - used for everything from checking email to scrolling through Instagram - Luckey says the brand decided to expand the idea to include all forms of distracted driving. AT&T also wanted to evolve the message so it would resonate more directly with people of all age groups, not just teens and millennials.

“When we got into 2015, we realized this is not a problem that’s unique to texting and unique to kids and millennials. This is something that’s much more pervasive,” he says. “So we began to broaden the definition. The smartphone that is in your pocket is the remote control of your life, and probably only a small percentage of what you do on that device is only texting. So what we have done is try to broaden that definition and dramatize the many different ways that you can be distracted by your phone.”

This new positioning was harrowingly captured in a PSA created by BBDO New York. In the haunting film, it’s not a reckless teen behind the wheel that causes an accident, but a mother who becomes distracted by the likes and comments she’s getting on a picture she posted of her daughter. A year later, AT&T launched another PSA film featuring a hapless dad who is met with disastrous consequences after taking his eyes off the road for a mere moment.

In addition to PSA spots and more traditional campaign elements, AT&T has made experiential an essential aspect of ‘It Can Wait.’ Last month, the company rolled out a virtual reality experience, currently on a nationwide tour of more than 200 stops, that it says brings viewers “face-to-face with the very real dangers of distracted driving."

The campaign has enjoyed its fair share of star power as well: pro golfer and AT&T brand ambassador Jordan Spieth is a spokesperson for ‘It Can Wait,’ and is appearing in two spots for the campaign that are running during this year’s Masters golf tournament.

Tracking progress

Despite all its efforts over the years to curtail distracted driving, AT&T has struggled to tangibly connect its efforts to a reduction in fatalities and injuries on the road.

The company boasts of the fact that 23 million people have vowed to never drive distracted again via ‘It Can Wait’ pledge, and Luckey says that AT&T’s free DriveMode app - which silences incoming alerts and phone calls so users can stay focused while driving - has been downloaded more than 20 million times.

But numbers from the US Department of Transportation (DOT) show that deaths due to distracted driving haven't significantly decreased in recent years. According to DOT, 3,450 deaths were caused by distraction-related driving in 2016, down 2.2% from the year prior. However, that number is still higher than the 3,267 deaths that occurred due to distraction-related driving in 2010, the year ‘It Can Wait’ launched.

What’s more, almost nine out of 10 people admit to using their smartphone behind the wheel, while nearly a quarter don’t identify using a smartphone while driving as a major problem, according to recent data from AT&T.

Even though the company’s efforts to date have yet to move the needle substantially, Luckey says AT&T plans to keep on pushing this message and raising awareness of the problem as long as it persists.

“As long as these devices are going to continue to cause distractions, we will not be backing off on our messaging,” he says. And while it’s a problem with seemingly no easy fix, it’s one that Luckey says most people have no trouble getting behind.

“In a world that’s very polarizing, this is something that’s an amazing unifier,” Luckey says. “Nobody takes any issue with the good work that is being done to try to reduce the dangers of distracted driving.”

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