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Using the TimePlay app, theatregoers are asked to choose how an onscreen character should spend his last day of high school. No matter the choice, he gets into an accident after texting and driving.

Try to have a talk with your kids about making good choices, and watch the fidgeting and eye-rolling begin.

Public service announcements face the same attitude, and not just with kids, when it comes to tackling big issues like drinking and driving, safe sex, drug use and mental health. One new campaign is trying to tackle this problem by getting audiences to participate in the story.

Starting late last month, people going to the movies at Cineplex Inc. theatres in English Canada have been asked to play a game. Using the TimePlay app – which usually presents activities like movie quizzes on the big screen, allowing people to play using their mobile phones – audiences are asked to decide how a teenager should spend his last day of high school. What music should he listen to? What prank should he play at school? Should he hang out with his buddies or his girlfriend? Over 90 seconds, viewers get a glimpse of his family, his home, and a sense of who he is. The twist is that all these decisions are fruitless: While driving, he texts his friends and gets into an accident.

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Public service announcements are not immune to using shock tactics. This summer, for example, the Ontario government released an ad showing an accident and then lingering on footage of the driver in a hospital room, confined to a wheelchair. AT&T's "It Can Wait" campaign in the United States used a ghostly child to remind people that it's not just themselves they could hurt in an accident.

The difference with this campaign is that it puts viewers on the spot, asking them to pledge immediately not to make the same choice as the teenager in the ad, and displays their first names on the movie screen. Later, after they've seen the movie, they're reminded of their pledge when they open the app.

The results have been surprising: Over the past month, roughly 150,000 people have taken the pledge, amounting to 69 per cent of those who played the game. Many more who don't have the app – an estimated 600,000 – have seen the ad, which ran on 730 screens.

"We were worried when we launched it. People aren't expecting that kind of interaction," said Richard Vincent, director of product development at TimePlay. "It seems to have worked."

The campaign is the brainchild of Paul Lavoie and Jane Hope, co-founders of ad agency Taxi, and Paul's daughter Catherine Paradis Lavoie, who together launched the Voilà Foundation to invest money, their creative abilities, and their network of contacts to address issues they care about.

The charity Parachute Canada, which addresses preventable injuries, matched their donation. Cineplex donated screen time, TimePlay donated its resources, and other production partners donated services free or at cost.

A driver who is texting is 23 times more likely to have a crash, according to Parachute. Over all, driver distraction is involved in roughly four million crashes in North America a year, according to the Canadian Automobile Association. But these types of statistics can be easy to tune out.

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"You can tell people anything you want, but if you ask them to make a decision, publicly, it's different … ," Mr. Lavoie said. "In marketing, you have to know who you're talking to, and how to have that conversation."

TimePlay is now in talks with Screen Vision Media to expand the campaign to movie theatres in the United States. Mr. Lavoie is also working on funding to shoot the commercial in French to expand its viewership in Canada.

While the campaign is for a cause, Mr. Vincent also believes it can work as a demo for a wider range of advertisers wishing to do focus groups, for example, to get input on new products, or simply to allow them to vote on what they would prefer to see in an ad.

"We're already pitching that," he said.

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