It’s hard to pull off any firsts in football, but AT&T has scored big, with advertising introducing the first-ever inclusive 5G helmet for deaf and hard-of-hearing football players. Marc Burns, AT&T’s vice president of advertising and social media, explains why the first purpose-driven act in “Connecting Changes Everything,” the platform introduced earlier this year, means so much.
Marketing Daily: This football helmet is an unusual product, and the spot is inspiring. Give us the genesis of the campaign.
Marc Burns: This started as a product-led initiative in 2021, as we were looking for ways to demonstrate AT&T’s purpose, which is connecting people to greater possibilities. We want to live that purpose, so this started as an initiative to genuinely improve on-field communications for this audience. It took a few years to develop, working with Gallaudet University. We built prototypes and crash-tested them. And we partnered with the NCAA to include it in the team’s game earlier this month. The ad exhibits what we call story -doing rather than just storytelling. It’s about a real product for real people.
Marketing Daily: You won’t sell many of these. The Deaf community is relatively small, and not many play football. Why is this kind of product development such an interesting story for the rest of us?
Burns: We're not intending to mass manufacture these and sell them. They are an exhibit of how AT&T’s 5G five network can connect people. While we have demonstrated its power for a specific audience and sport, the technology can be deployed much more broadly than the way we've first shown. This technology can also be used in any helmet-based environment requiring real-time communication: sports, construction sites, and first responders. The possibilities for this are actually extraordinarily large.
Marketing Daily: As the ad industry has pushed for more inclusion, there have been plenty of great ads that including deaf people. Yours is very different, using silence as well as music. How did you come up with creative that stands out?
Burns: Building technology like this takes time and is not easy. We were about six months into this assignment and adamant that we would take the time to do it right. So the role of advertising was to do justice to the brilliant thing that our company had done. We wanted something extraordinary and authentic. The team in the ad is the Gallaudet team -- it’s their coach, that’s the actual quarterback. And the music is super-important. The track was originally written about communication problems, which is not widely known.
Marketing Daily: Yes, I’ve read the song was written about a friend of Art Garfunkel’s, right?
Burns: Yes. And recently, Paul Simon has been talking about his significant hearing loss. We rerecorded the track with Amira Unplugged, an artist who herself is a member of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. That brings extraordinary power. She has extra layers and textures with the way she approaches things. She spent over an hour sitting with the team, talking about the importance of the track, lyrics and how much it meant to her. And you feel that in her vocals.
Marketing Daily: The more the world learns about concussions, the more attention gets focused on helmets. There are plenty of people who think the sport should be banned.
Burns: Yes. But it is part of American culture, particularly college football. Our helmet is made with the same rigorous testing as any NCAA helmet, and our engineers used the highest safety standards possible. And since this launch, we've talked about the possibilities for this in other applications. It’s opening important conversations.
Marketing Daily: Before joining AT&T, you worked at agencies like BBDO and Leo Burnett. Do you think that makes you a better client? Or worse?
Burns: I avoid responding to being called a client. I much prefer to be represented as a partner. These are relationships that are a free exchange of ideas. We can have healthy debates – that’s what makes the work great. Translation, which made this spot, has been an extraordinary partner for a number of years. They have a deep understanding of audiences and culture. And I am incredibly proud of our team and company for having done something like this. It is unquestionably the most important thing I've ever worked on.