A brief history of the car crash commercial

AT&T's devastating "It Can Wait" spot is the latest entry in a creative subgenre with a long, weird history

Last week, AT&T unveiled the latest installment of its "It Can Wait" campaign, a devastating four-minute film that culminates in a violent car wreck caused by a mother’s stolen glance at her phone. CNET called it "stomach turning." Creativity said it was "gut wrenching." This commercial "will break your heart," said Huffington Post. By the end of the week, the spot had been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube and was trending on Twitter.  

Reaction was visceral, but overwhelmingly positive — no small accomplishment given the dicey history of commercials featuring auto collisions. Once taboo, the car crash commercial has grown into something of a creative subgenre in the past 30 years, embraced by everyone from auto brands to nonprofits to telecoms. Before 1990, not a single TV commercial showed a car wreck involving live people. Since January 2014, there have been at least three (two highly celebrated, one nearly banned).

Advertisers approaching this subject face two potential pitfalls. If the spots are too timid, they don’t have an effect. If they’re too disturbing, they alienate the viewer, as in the case of a 2014 PSA for Irish television that depicted a motorist crashing into a group of schoolchildren. This spot caused such an uproar that television stations would only show it after 9 p.m.

The "It Can Wait" campaign has avoided such an outcome by embracing a cinematic approach, personified by the 2013 spot "From One Second to the Next." German filmmaker Werner Herzog directed the 35-minute video, and it is heartbreaking. Michelle Kuckelman, executive director of integrated brand marketing for AT&T, said that was exactly the idea, given the worrisome trends that the company was uniquely positioned to see.

"AT&T started recognizing the data and seeing what was going on, on the street," she told Campaign. "We were seeing more unsafe behavior on the phone, specifically with texting." Given the life-and-death nature of the issue, AT&T felt justified showing the collision.

That hasn’t always been the case. In the 1980s, even non-profits dedicated to to curbing auto fatalities stuck to metaphor when representing accidents in their advertising. "Crashing Glasses," the now-legendary 1983 Ad Council spot (better known by its tag line, "Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk"), cleverly showed two beer mugs crashing into each other and shattering as sounds of a car crash played in the background.

Two years later, the Ad Council introduced the world to Vince and Larry, the crash-test dummies who advocated for seatbelt use. By deftly combining humor with images of people-free crashes, the campaign — which ran until 1999 — is credited with increasing seat belt usage to 79% from 14%.

It wasn’t until 1990, when a stunt driver named Roger Richman literally took the place of one of the crash test dummies in a Plymouth airbag commercial, that a live person was shown getting into an accident in a TV commercial. Though the spot is not available online, an Los Angeles Times article from the time calls it a "smash hit."

"I knew that I was strictly a live piece of meat," Richman told the LA Times. "But it's rare that we stunt drivers get to do something that might benefit mankind. How many lives have been saved by watching stunt drivers on 'The A-Team' or 'Starsky & Hutch?' "

Though nobody knew it at the time, the commercial marked the beginning of a trend in which car crash commercials strove for terrifying realism. The collision depicted in the current "It Can Wait" commercial, "Close to Home," courtesy of BBDO, certainly fits that description.

Matt MacDonald, executive creative director at BBDO, said the harrowing experience the commercial puts the viewer through serves a purpose, and it’s not just shock value.

"People are really good at rationalizing their behavior, because they’re saying, ‘I’m not texting, I’m glancing at a photo,’ " he said. "We had to be very specific, and very graphic and visceral, in depicting how one decision can have a lifetime of consequences."

Frederic Planchon, who directed the commercial, went to great lengths to make sure it pulled no punches. Rather than rely on sterile, weightless CGI to depict the collision, it was filmed live, with real cars, for maximum impact. The crash itself had to be filmed three times to get it right, a painstaking process that took days to complete.

This type of realism wasn’t always popular. In 2006, Volkswagen and its agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, faced consumer backlash over a pair of commercials featuring  startling car wrecks that came out of nowhere. The commercials, for the Jetta and the Passat, were meant to demonstrate the cars’ safety features, and even ended with shots of the passengers standing outside of their wrecked cars, with nary a scratch. Nevertheless, many people found the spots gratuitously jarring.

"Their plan, obviously, is to get us totally freaked about car crashes," Seth Stevenson wrote in Slate. "And, judging by the post-traumatic e-mails I'm getting from readers, that plan appears to be working. Since these spots are filmed mostly from inside the cars and feature likable, attractive-but-not-too-attractive characters, the viewer is led to feel like part of the gang. When the accidents hit, we feel like victims, too."

According to the New York Times, an Ohio woman named Cathy Collins wrote directly to Volkswagen to tell them that she was "traumatized" by their "repulsive new advertising campaign." Kyrie O'Connor, who was then the deputy managing editor for features for The Houston Chronicle, called it "the freakiest, most upsetting ad on TV right now."

If anyone at Volkswagen regretted the effect that these advertisements had, they didn’t let on. Not long after the outcry had taken place, Volkswagen created a third spot, in which two women criticizing the ad campaign from inside a car get crashed into on its passenger side.

Every so often, one of these commercials gets everything right. In 2014, BBDO created such an ad for the New Zealand market that drew accolades for its groundbreaking use of slow-motion and freeze-frame, and its unorthodox narrative. Where the 2006 Volkswagen ads blindsided viewers, this one froze everything just before the moment of impact, when both drivers’ lives were about to change forever.

When one of the drivers, whose son is in the car, says to the other driver, "Please, I’ve got my boy in the back," it’s a gut-wrenching moment, one to which anyone who’s ever made a mistake with permanent consequences can relate. According to Autoblog, it was viewed over 4 million times in its first six days.

Clearly, when done right, these commercials have the power to draw eyeballs. The question is whether they have the power to change our behavior behind the wheel. 

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