When ads go viral, it’s often because they aren’t so much an ad but a short film with decent shots for the Oscars. Take At&T’s recent distracted driving ad, “Close to Home | It Can Wait”, with more than 3 million times on YouTube. Check it out below.
Now this ad doesn’t mince niceties; it gets visceral on how distracted driving can destroy communities. It’s often that ads throwing shock value is spectacular for spectacle sake and misaimed. However when dealing with safety ads need shock value to be effective. And this is where AT&T succeeds.
Now shock in any narrative medium can liven up the story but is tricky to wield. Livening up stories usually follow some variation of Chandler’s Law. From the great man himself: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”
It’s a great way to juice up your story, but you can’t have every chapter have armed men bursting through doors. Readers will get bored and even if they came bursting in with a nuke, the story will still be stale. It’s why the finger chopping moment in the video game “Heavy Rain” was so impactful. It was one of the few gory scenes in the video game. In triple-AAA shooters, despite throwing waves of enemies at the player, there isn’t any meaningful impact.
In “It can wait”, the first half is just ordinary people living their lives in ordinary ways to lull you in the familiar rhythm of everyday life. Which makes the crash all the more powerful when it shatters this idyllic setup.
Great narratives need developed characters so we can sympathize with them. Most of the B-level teen-horror schlock is awful not for unimaginative monsters or kills but for B-level character development. The sex-crazed teenager, the black man, the police officer, the hanger-ons. Stereotypes that can die in the goriest way and the only response is to laugh or yawn. Great horror films like “The Exorcist” or “The Shining”, are good because horrible things are happening at characters we care about.
Close to Home doesn’t just pace itself well, but gives each character moments of development, from the child’s brief thought on a discarded shoe, to the pickup truck driver’s joking banter with his wife. That we feel what they are thinking when the inevitable crash occurs.
Now shocking moments have to be shocking and unexpected, enough to break the complacency the audience is lulled by the narrative flow. Costigan’s surprisingly sudden death in “The Departed” is a great example of employing shock in popular culture. At that point in the movie, deaths were dramatic, and no other character was gunning after Costigan.
Close to Home does shock well. It set a tight contrast between the natural rhythm the charcters distract themselves to the jarring crash played forward and rewind, for maximum impact. It’s not a surprise the title “close to home” was so well-chosen as its production.
While shocking your audience will always grab their attention, how it’s directed is more finicky. For example, the heartwarming Thailand ads are heartwarming and often go viral for the right reasons. Now if you can remember what some of them were selling then go and buy yourself a milkshake. Your memory is awesome. For most of us, though it’s difficult to connect the ad to the service.
Often times even with good narrative works the theme contradicts the narrative itself leading to many broken Aesops. AT&T knows full well what it wants to do, don’t text and drive. That’s why it used shock value, in order to punch at it’s viewers why distracted driving is so dangerous.