Since premiering last week, Werner Herzog's documentary on the dangers of texting while driving has attracted nearly 1.5 million on-line viewers. The 35-minute film is part of the 'It Can Wait' campaign led by AT&T to make texting while driving "as unacceptable as drinking and driving."
"It's tremendous to have that happen so quickly," says AT&T spokeswoman Andrea Brands, reacting to the growing number of the views the documentary "From One Second to the Next" has garnered since it was posted on AT&T's YouTube channel on August 8th. "We certainly hope to get even more hits as we go to the schools with this message," Brands says.
AT&T is sending a link to the documentary to 40,000 high schools in the U.S., along with safety organizations and government agencies. But from the film's first spoken words, it's clear that AT&T chose Herzog because the acclaimed filmmaker would produce something more powerful than a typical public service announcement or after-school special.
"I had my brother in my hand, and all of a sudden, my hand was empty," says a teenage girl from Milwaukee, describing the texting accident that paralyzed 8 year old Xzavier Davis-Bilbo from the diaphragm down. The documentary gives voice to victims like Xzavier, but also to drivers who caused accidents.
"I knew I could do it because it has to do with catastrophic events invading a family," Herzog told the Associated Press. "In one second, entire lives are either wiped out or changed forever. That kind of emotional resonance is something that I knew I could cover." Herzog's long list of film credits include "Fitzcarraldo," "Rescue Dawn" and "Grizzly Man".
Of working for a corporate client like AT&T, Herzog said: "This has nothing to do with consumerism or being part of advertising products. This whole campaign is rather dissuading you from excessive use of a product. It's a campaign. We're not trying to sell anything to you. We're trying to raise awareness."
AT&T spokeswoman Andrea Brands says raising awareness among teens - who use texts as a primary means of communicating - prompted some tough questions inside the company. Would AT&T use text messages to target teens about not texting while driving?
"You have to have that discussion," Brands says. "Texting is the most efficient way to get to teens. That is what they do the most." But in the end, Brand says the company decided to rely on grass-roots marketing and social media channels like Twitter and Facebook to get the message out to teens.
Will the documentary and awareness campaign work? The documentary's opening graphic says over 100,000 accidents a year involve drivers who are texting and states "those numbers are climbing sharply." Recent figures from AAA of California show texting while driving is up 126 percent over 5 years ago, when California banned the use of handheld mobile phones while driving.
Dina Mayzlin, Associate Professor of Marketing at USC's Marshall School of Business, compares AT&T's campaign to an alcoholic beverage maker advertising for drinking responsibly. Herzog's film, she says, will give the campaign a big push.
"By having such a well-made movie, I think AT&T is gambling that this will get people to forward just the content itself," says Mayzlin, who studies how businesses manage social interactions. The gamble should pay off and the film should continue to attract viewers, as some marketing research has shown her that when content is more is emotional, online viewers are more likely to forward it to others.