WHY A.T. & T. IS TALKING ABOUT TEXTING AND DRIVING
POSTED BY IAN CROUCH
The thirty-five-minute documentary “From One Second to the Next,” directed by Werner Herzog and released online by the four largest mobile carriers in the United States, opens with an image of an empty hand. It belongs to a young woman whose brother, Xzavier, was struck by a car driven by someone who, absorbed in a text message, ran through a four-way stop. Xzavier was paralyzed from the neck down, and now must use a ventilator to breathe. In another scene, a young man with startling blue eyes tells the camera, “This was the last text message I sent before I caused an accident that killed three people.” The words “I love you” flash on the screen. He was texting his girlfriend when he accidentally ran down an Amish buggy on the side of the road in Indiana.
The film is gentle to the people whose stories it tells, whether they are victims or perpetrators. Above all, it expresses a skepticism about the value of technological connectedness. “It’s just nuts, it’s crazy,” says a truck driver who hit a car that was pushed into his lane by another texting driver, about the popularity of sending messages from behind the wheel. And then, in the film’s final line: “I don’t know why people don’t want to talk to each other, anyway.”
That is a jolting takeaway for a public-service announcement funded by companies that sell texting services and data plans. The film is as much a critique of American culture as it is an imperative to exercise restraint on the road. Herzog’s involvement, and the powerful ideas he explores, has given the documentary credibility. It has also brought attention to an industry-wide corporate social-marketing campaign called It Can Wait, which was launched by A.T. & T. in 2010 and, in 2012, attracted the support of Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. The campaign has worked to keep people in their teens and early twenties from texting while driving by using national advertising, celebrity testimonials, and demonstrations in schools across the country, and social-media tools like a no-texting Facebook pledge and a designated hashtag on Twitter. The goal of the program, Marissa Shorenstein, the president of A.T. & T.’s New York office, told me, is to “get to the point where texting and driving is as unacceptable as drinking and driving.”
Texting—or e-mailing, tweeting, or Web surfing—while driving causes thousands of accidents a year, though it is hard to determine a precise number. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration put the number of accidents caused by what it calls “distracted driving”—which includes talking on the phone, fiddling with the radio, putting on makeup, etc.—at three hundred and eighty-seven thousand in 2011, the most recent year for which these statistics have been compiled. Some percentage of this distraction is caused by texting; a recent study by the University of Washington that captured images at intersections found that half of distracted drivers were seen sending texts or otherwise typing on their phones.
Texting while driving is not only manifestly dangerous; in forty-one states, it is also illegal. But it is difficult to monitor, police, and punish. In study after study, an overwhelming majority of people say that they know it is irresponsible and dangerous, yet do it anyway. According to figures from a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, thirty-one per cent of adults have admitted to texting and driving. (Other surveys have put that figure higher, and because of the stigma attached to it these self-reported numbers are probably low.)
A cell phone or a mobile network is not, in itself, a dangerous thing. And yet the nation’s wireless carriers have reason to be concerned about texting and driving, from an ethical and a business standpoint, because their networks carry our messages and enable our compulsion to be constantly reachable. Every news story about a traffic fatality caused by texting, and every image of mangled cars or flashing ambulance lights, reminds consumers about the device at the accident’s center.
Still, when we go looking for people to blame, the search ends pretty quickly: it seems that many of us believe the responsibility lies with those using their phones at the wheel and no one else. Lawsuits by accident victims or their families against mobile carriers or device makers have gained little traction in the judicial system, which may reflect a wider cultural sentiment: few of us would be inclined to blame these accidents on Apple or Samsung or Verizon or A.T. & T. the way we draw connections between, for instance, cigarette producers and victims of lung cancer or kids with asthma. That’s because, unlike cigarettes, there is a safe way to use cell phones and mobile networks.
And yet, rather than distancing themselves from the dangers of distracted driving, or waiting for pressure to mount from outsiders, the major national carriers, led by A.T. & T., have become the loudest and most coherent voices on the issue. And so, when we think about texting and driving, we think of them.
I asked Marissa Shorenstein why A.T. & T. had decided to create an initiative that, at least indirectly, highlights the position of wireless companies in the problem. Had A.T. & T. been compelled by outside forces to address the issue? “There was no pressure on the company,” she said. “Wireless technology is relatively new, and we had noticed over several years that texting had become increasingly abused in terms of driving. We felt strongly that it was our responsibility as an industry leader to insure that our devices are being used safely and properly.” Shorenstein makes an important distinction: texting while driving is not a natural result of constant connectedness but a misuse of cell phones.
A.T. & T. has introduced DriveMode, an app for Android and BlackBerry devices (though not iPhones) that sends an automatic-reply message if the driver receives a text or e-mail when travelling at more than twenty-five miles an hour, the idea being that users want to appear present to their contacts rather than seeming to ignore them. When the car slows below twenty-five miles an hour for five minutes, the app shuts off. (There are also other third-party apps that either block outgoing texts or send similar auto replies.)
Shorenstein said the anti-texting campaign has become the company’s second biggest social-action project, after its grant program for high-school education. She didn’t offer an exact figure, but told me that the company had spent millions of dollars on it over the past four years. Recently, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have signed on, as well—but the campaign is still most closely associated with its creator. A.T. & T. handles press and is using its connections with schools to distribute the Herzog documentary. A Google search for the phrase “It Can Wait” mostly returns results for A.T. & T.-sponsored pages, and the videos on the campaign’s home page feature the company’s logo in the top-right corner. This summer, many stories about the Herzog documentary failed to mention the other mobile carriers at all.
Is It Can Wait working? It remains to be seen whether the campaign can convince drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. For years, government agencies and transportation-safety groups have tried a combination of awareness campaigns and stricter laws to compel drivers to slow down or wear their seat belts. But this kind of behavior modification is tough to pull off, and many psychologists have argued that people require more tangible incentives to make these kinds of changes—for example, rewards system similar to the lowered insurance rates offered by State Farm to young drivers who submit a driving log, or by Geico to customers willing to take a defensive-driving course. A plea to stop texting may be emotionally powerful, but it might not be enough.
Another question is whether the campaign has been good for A.T. & T.’s business. That, too, is difficult to judge. The campaign certainly connects A.T. & T. with personal responsibility and safety. And by focussing the program on teens, A.T. & T. has made early brand connections with young people while also appealing to concerned parents, who are often the ones paying the cell-phone bills. It Can Wait has attracted wide and positive press coverage, too. In August, the Times published an editorial about the Herzog documentary, writing that “the project sets a high standard for how corporations can educate the public.”
The effect on consumer attitudes toward A.T. & T. is harder to gauge. Since the inception of the program, in 2010, A.T. & T.’s ranking on Fortune’s annual list of the most admired companies has held mostly steady, showing no sign of a spike in goodwill from consumers. There is a long history of survey-based evidence that an association with charitable causes can improve a brand’s image among consumers. Cone Communications, a Boston-based P.R. company, has been tracking this for twenty years; in its 2013 report, it noted that eighty-nine per cent of respondents to an online survey said that they would be “likely to switch brands to one associated with a cause, given comparable price and quality.” (The Cone study, like ones performed other marketing firms, asked broad questions and defined cause-marketing in extremely positive terms—as “companies changing their business practices and giving their support to help address the social and environmental issues the world faces today”—which may have influenced respondents’ answers.)
Peer-reviewed academic studies in which subjects were asked to talk about brand preferences in a lab setting have also shown that people will rate a brand engaged in social causes more favorably, especially if those consumers identify closely with the cause itself. A 2012 study by Sean Blair and Alexander Chernev, at the Kellogg School of Management, found that test subjects who were told that a winemaker donated part of its profits to charity rated that wine more favorably, on average, than another group of similar consumers who did not receive that information.
It is less clear, however, whether this positive feeling translates to financial returns. In the second quarter of 2013, A.T. & T.’s share of the American wireless market shrunk to 26.5 per cent, down from 28.4 per cent in the same period last year, according to Kantar, a global market-research company. The It Can Wait campaign isn’t likely to have hurt A.T. & T.’s market share, but it also doesn’t appear to have helped it enough to make up for other challenges to the company. A 2013 study, also from Kellogg, found that companies spend more on social-cause campaigns than they earn back in increased profits.
And there is another question, which relates to the “fit” of a particular campaign. One might assume that consumers respond most positively to social-marketing efforts that seem related to a company’s business: the outdoor-clothing manufacturer Timberland’s ongoing campaign to plant five million trees, for example, or Budweiser’s flying a blimp with the words “Designate a Driver” across the country this summer. But, in a 2006 experiment, researchers found no evidence that this is the case. In fact, they argued, a too-obvious association might spark suspicion among consumers of corporate self-interest.
Maybe this matters less to A.T. & T. than the cynics among us might expect. Shorenstein said the company is only trying to make sure people use their devices properly. By corralling competing mobile carriers under the It Can Wait umbrella, A.T. & T. has ceded some control of the campaign that it pioneered, suggesting that it views solving the problem as more important than being seen as the sole problem-solver. Meanwhile, A.T. & T.’s message seems to be catching on. A few weeks ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a new anti-texting initiative for the state’s major highways. Rest stops and commuter parking areas will be rebranded as “texting zones,” where drivers can pull off the road to respond to messages. At the announcement, on a large, blue highway sign behind Cuomo, were the words: “IT CAN WAIT—TEXT STOP 5 MILES.”