The Truth is More Effective Than A Sugar-Coated Message: Texting While Driving Kills

I'm a distracted person, so it would follow that I am a distracted driver. Among the activities in which I regularly engage while careening down twisty roads at 70 mph are scratching itches, burrito-wrangling and manipulating the iPod to find that one song whose name always escapes me - you know, the one with the guitars and melodies and words. I also check in on and converse with my kid, usually stationed two rows back in our suburban colossocruiser.

But sending or scrolling through text messages while driving? Good heavens, sir - I'm not a monster. As per our pals on the what-about-the-children-won't-somebody-PLEASE-think-of-the-children! councils, the only things worse than texting while driving are sleeping while bicycling, juggling while praying and tattoos. I know this. I might've missed the specific messaging to that end, but common sense filled in the blanks.

That's why I'm disappointed by AT&T's continued "It Can Wait" push, which endeavors to alert teens to the dangers posed by texting while driving. It's not that the campaign isn't well-intentioned, nor that it glosses over the central message in favor of the covert branding that tends to infect such efforts. It's just that the execution, at least in the most recent spots featuring teen idols, is slapdash. It feels as if AT&T is continuing with the campaign because it has to, as if ordered to do so by the high judge of corporation court as part of its mandated community service. "Fine, we'll do it… but we don't have to like it," etc.



I was alerted to the existence of the most recent clips by my Twitter feed (separately, congrats to whoever designed the algorithm that dropped teen-targeted sponsored links into a middle-aged dude's feed). The first of the two features the heroically named Victoria Justice, a teen star of some repute. The video commences as she walks the halls of a generic high school, as if somebody that impossibly adorable needs a secondary education to succeed in life. Amid her peers, at least eight of whom might be incognito security officers, she takes the I-won't-text-and-drive pledge - which, contrary to what you might have heard from those gremlins at Verizon, does not involve a blood sacrifice or incantations in an ancient tongue. Then the whole lot of 'em dash off en masse, ostensibly to do something wholesome, like smile.

The problem with the Justice video lies in its too-easy celebrity sheen. Yes, she delivers the pledge with pluck, but leading with happy dream-speak like "if I could tell my fans one thing, it would be 'do what inspires you'" muddies the message. And to be honest, its hyperduper sincerity is hard to swallow, especially since the name "Victoria Justice" tends to activate one's youthful insouciance and prompt the brainstorming of inappropriate come-ons ("lemme tell you whut, Vicky, you can star-spangle MY banner any day").

The clip featuring Ryan Beatty doesn't fare any better, for many of the same reasons. In it, the somewhat less than articulate singer ("not only am I happy to be involved, but I'm happy to share with all these people here, you know, to get involved, for them to take the pledge") meets up with fans at an AT&T store, where they affirm the evils of texting while driving with an almost religious fervor. Ha ha - no, mostly they note how the "It Can Wait" campaign "really opens peoples' eyes and their minds," as if talking about Dark Side of the Moon rather than a legitimate public-safety concern. It doesn't help that half of the I-don't-text-and-drive-and-neither-should-you admonitions from event attendees practically beg to be requoted without proper context ("it is so tempting to take it out and look at it").

Here's what I find inordinately frustrating: previous "It Can Wait" volleys have been so, so powerful. Check out this mini-documentary, which debuted a few years back, or this more serious-minded recent spot. The message is the same, but the tone is 72,000 times less rah-rah ("her face was disfigured from sliding down the roadway" strikes a slightly different note than "if I could tell my fans one thing, it would be 'do what inspires you'"). It doesn't patronize the target audience by slathering lip gloss all over an important message; it hammers home the potential consequences without blunting them. Now as when I was a teenager, the best way to get the attention of this audience is to scare the everlasting crap out of it.

Texting while driving is selfish and dangerous, as anyone with a lick of intelligence could tell you, and any web video, ad or seaplane banner which trumpets that message deserves a thumbs-up. But the glib, idol-centric approach of AT&T's web videos serves to minimize the importance of the issue. By saying this, I probably come across as an old person lecturing about how chewing gum during conversations of consequence is a sign of disrespect. Nonetheless, here's hoping AT&T rebalances the components of "It Can Wait" to emphasize its less cheery ones.

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