AT&T’s ‘It Can Wait’: Even Admirable Campaigns Can’t Wait to Succeed


Back in my fare burg of Dallas lives the telecom behemoth known as AT&T. One of its largest undertakings was the PSA campaign for It Can Wait. The clarion call for no texting and driving was a necessary one — and one AT&T put few limits on spreading.

It started in September 2009, and five years later, it is still being heralded as one of the country’s best campaigns. Only one problem: No one that should care does.

Awards. Awareness. Accolades. They don’t really matter without any action.

So, there I am, scrolling for a PR muse. I come across Digiday and see this headline: AT&T’s anti-texting campaign: lots of impressions, zero success. I thought that was a bit harsh. I mean, it has been five years. Certainly, they have done some good, but I suppose it all depends on how many drivers actually have “waited.”

AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign has generated hundreds of millions of social impressions and actions over the past two years, but no tangible results. The lack of results illustrates how difficult it is for brands that are successful on social media to affect change in the real world.

sad_attThat was the lede of the story, so I did some more research. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a study (via the Los Angeles Times) that shared this tidbit: “660,000 drivers are [currently] texting, tweeting, talking or otherwise preoccupied with their cellphones while speeding along the freeways or crawling through downtowns and suburban neighborhoods.”

Despite federal bans against texting and driving in most of the states in the Union, that is 660,000 people breaking the law at any given minute on any given day. Most people are starring in their own movie, so there is not much concern for the fellow man driving in the slow lane. If anything, I’m shocked that number isn’t higher.

So, now what?

Internal AT&T documents on the campaign reveal that “It Can Wait” has rendered hundreds of millions of impressions but few results. And given that the campaign has been so focused on digital — and social, specifically — it raises doubts about whether social engagements correspond to a brand’s goal.

Add to that what else the company is saying (inadvertently) and you may understand why shareholders are questioning their investment these days. AT&T has performed surveys finding that 47 percent of teenagers admit to texting while driving, and the number is probably higher because 75 percent of them say their friends text and drive. It was also revealed that 89 percent of teenagers felt pressured to respond to a text message within one minute.

This goes beyond ignorance behind the wheel; it’s become a pandemic among all drivers. AT&T clearly took the charge in this fight, but it has ultimately generated the same knowledge of best practices for safety as the pablum every flight attendant recites before takeoff.

Here’s the question: As long as peer pressure exists and teenagers are driven more by the need for validation than concerns about their own well-bring, do warnings about texting and driving work at all?

If not, what will work? I guess we will all wait until a satisfactory answer arrives — or until an urgent text lights up our smartphone screen. Whichever comes first.