"Nothing to 'LOL' about here....," a Facebook friend had written and, like a car wreck on the side of the road, I could not ignore the message that flashed across the TweetDeck app on my laptop. She'd linked to a video posted on a Facebook page called The Waking Circle, where the dire tone continued: "this is not easy to watch, but watch it. it will make you think before you start texting while driving. it will make you think before you get in a car with someone who is texting and driving. and, i hope -- it will make you STOP texting with someone that you know is behind wheel."
I clicked and saw a powerful, gritty 10-minute mini-documentary (see below) produced for AT&T by BBDO. When corporations try to mitigate the abuse or misuse of their products, they tend to shy away from straightforward, hard-hitting and graphic messages while urging responsible behavior on the part of the consumer. This is an exception, and it does so without avoiding the key role that personal responsibility takes in our decisions.
"The Last Text" opens with a Missouri highway patrolman talking about the scene he encountered the day that Mariah West's car crossed a meridian and hit a concrete bridge while she was getting driving directions from a boy friend: A pair of bloodied boots on the road that the trooper knew must belong to a young girl, her disfigured face, the cap and gown in her car awaiting her high school graduation the next day.
It then cuts to a girl who was texting her sister the moment her truck ran off a road, flipped, and sent her flying 300 feet through the driver's side door; a young man who killed a bicyclist while texting "LOL"; another young man who is undergoing intense therapy for the physical and cognitive damage done when his car hit a tree and, finally, a 19th birthday party that Mariah's mom holds for her friends, who recall her as vivacious and loving.
The doc was released a few days before New Year's as part of a multi-phase campaign to educate drivers about the risks of texting while driving that was first announced by AT&T chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson in September 2009 and formally kicked off last March. Print ads and the 15- and 30-second TV and radio spots from the "It Can Wait" campaign that launched at that time feature the actual text messages that victims were reading or sending when they crashed.
"Where u at" was on Mariah West's cell phone screen when she lost control of her vehicle. "This is the text my daughter was reading when she drove into oncoming traffic," her mom says in one :15 PSA for TV. The words "No text is worth dying over" scrolls on the screen, then the tagline: TEXTNG & DRIVNG.... IT CAN WAIT."
The text messages also figure prominently in the longer film. A young man I know who sends and receives about 4,000 messages a month found their use to be, perhaps, the most powerful part of the documentary.
When the PSAs were rolled out, Cathy Coughlin, svp and global marketing officer for AT&T, said that the "aha!" moment for the campaign came when a focus group was asked to read the last text they received. "When we asked if that particular message was worth the potential risk of reading while driving at 65 mph, you could have heard a pin drop," she said.
"Texting and driving is the new drinking and driving," AT&T spokeswoman Serena Thomas told me. Indeed, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation estimates that there are about 5,500 fatalities every year due to "distracted driving" and that the largest proportion is among teens. A Virginia Tech study released in 2009 found that a driver is 23 times more likely to have a collision if he or she is texting.
I asked Thomas about the straightforward approach of the campaign. "You don't, for instance, just say 'text responsibly' or suggest that people use a 'designated texter.'" She replied that AT&T had worked very closely with the families and friends of the victims and wanted to honor their intent to get the word out.
"It's a very raw look at what can happen," she said. "We want people to responsibly use our technology. In research we found that this sort of direct message really resonates a lot better."
The AT&T "It Can Wait" webpage offers additional resources to teens, parents and educators. More than 1.3 million people have "liked" the Facebook page and AT&T is working with many groups, from schools to defensive driving courses to police departments to spread the message.
Meanwhile, for those of us who did not see "The Last Text" launch on "Good Morning America" in late December, or missed the write-up in the New York Times' "Bits" blog, it's never too late to jump on the viral bandwagon for a cause that could save the life of a loved one.