Project Overview

Dumb Ways to Die initially began as a simple, light-hearted song to raise awareness for public train safety. The concept was to make train hazards a ‘dumb way to die’, putting a comedic spin on safety to better target a younger audience. Within a week, the video reached over 20 million views on YouTube and gained national news coverage. The song soon became available on iTunes, where it consistently reached top billboard charts in major countries.

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Dumb Ways to Die sky-rocketed up the iTunes charts (iTunes, 2012).

A dedicated Tumblr page also accompanied the campaign which pushed the PSA to go viral. It became the Internet’s most shared video in 2012. Radio advertising also played a roll in spreading the message, which was so successful radio stations started playing the song for free.

As the song gained so much attention and momentum, the PSA was further expanded to include train station/public posters and billboards, a children’s book and a website where people could ‘make the pledge’ to be safe around train stations.

Nearly all aspects of the campaign pushed people towards the website where they could push the button and make the pledge to train safety. This was implemented to try and actively change people’s behaviour, rather than stop at a public message.

The campaign also included user participation through a smart phone app.

The campaign was wildly successful. Various covers were produced by different artists and the song was used in school as an effective method for teaching safety. But more importantly, following the campaign, Metro Trains found a 21% reduction in train station incidents (Brand News, 2013). While it is hard to attribute this result directly to the campaign, it is a positive statistic that does help argue that the campaign has been effective.

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Dumb Ways to Die case study (Brand News, 2013).

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Storytelling

In recent years, many digital and advertising experts have debated the question of how to create a truly great viral campaign. A great part of a successful campaign is the story it tells, and the method/s used to communicate this narrative. Often campaigns can fall short due to a weak, cliche or overused narrative. Dumb Ways to Die countered this by releasing shareable content that was cute, funny and most importantly, had entertainment value.

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Typical train safety PSA’s have often used the ‘shock’ tactic (Operation Lifesaver, 2016).

The first step for McCann Melbourne and Metro Trains was to produce and record a music video entitled ‘Dumb Ways To Die’. The video featured a cute song with morbidly ‘funny’ cartoon characters dying in ridiculous ways. It ended with a reference to the main point: railway safety. Therefore, the narrative effectively is that there are many ‘dumb’, easily avoidable ways to die, and being hit by a train is one of these.

Following this, McCann Melbourne continued to release additional content on multiple platforms (which is explained in more detail in the next section). Each separate platform told the same story and had the same characters, while creating their own individual charm by using the strengths of their respective platform.

The narrative is intriguing due to the way it deals with the usually sombre topic of death. It presents it in a light hearted, comedic manner, making one laugh at the hilarity of all the different ‘dumb ways to die’. Certainly, traditional public safety announcement models have all too often focused on shocking the viewers, and over time this has become predictable to the point where many people would simply ignore it. In stark contrast, Dumb Ways to Die tells the story in a much more entertaining, light hearted way, yet still communicating the same message of train safety. This is both unique and original, and also makes it more ‘shareable’ due to its entertainment value.

Platforms

As mentioned earlier, Dumb Ways to Die utilised various platforms to great effect. Much of its success can be attributed to the fact that each platform has been used to their maximum potential. Let’s explore some of the ways McCann Melbourne and Metro Trains achieved this.

The release of the original Dumb Ways to Die song was carefully planned to maximise the impact that particular medium could have. The song was upbeat and catchy, with comedic lyrics that add humour without forgetting the message behind the song. In addition, the music video is both entertaining and engaging to watch, with funny cartoon characters and bright, colourful animations. The culmination of all this results in a well polished piece that is both engaging to watch as a video – such as on YouTube, where it has enjoyed great success with 123+ million views (DumbWays2Die, 2012) – and is pleasurable to listen to as a song.

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The original Dumb Ways to Die song (Metro Trains, 2012).

As mentioned earlier, the song tells a story. This story has been adapted perfectly into a smart phone game. The Dumb Ways to Die smart phone game allows users to try and save the cartoon characters from their ‘dumb deaths’, increasing the difficulty as the user keeps playing. Once their three lives have expired, the game is over and can be played again to try and reach a new high score. The game is made very well, engaging the viewer by getting them to tap, swipe and rub the screen – or even blow into the microphone! All the while, the game is still telling the same story – to be safe around trains and avoid an easily preventable death or injury.

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Screenshots from the Dumb Ways to Die smartphone game (Metro Trains, 2013).

The Tumblr page also allows the audience to interact with the campaign, as many Tumblr users enjoy reblogging and sharing posts. Like the smart phone game, this allows consumers to create and enjoy their own experience with Dumb Ways to Die.

Finally, the children’s story book and posters communicate the same message to their respective audiences. This is one of Dumb Ways to Die‘s biggest strengths as a public awareness campaign; the fact that so many audiences can all receive the same message. The cherry on the top is the fact that every platform encourages the viewer to visit the Metro Trains website and ‘take the pledge’. The pledge is a declaration that one makes to be safe around trains.

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Dumb Ways to Die poster in a Melbourne train station (Metro Trains, 2013).

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The pledge that users of the Dumb Ways to Die game are encouraged to make (Metro Trains, 2013).

Target Audience

Clearly, the campaign was designed to target as wide a range of people as possible. Traditionally, safety announcements are quite grim and shocking, to instill some amount of fear and caution in the public. However, this PSA took a completely different route and created a humorous, friendly campaign so the message was not lost on a younger generation.

With the campaign’s use of Tumblr pages, YouTube videos, smart phone games and children’s books, the message was able to reach a much younger generation in a significantly more engaging way than other traditional PSA’s.

Smart phone usage has grown massively in recent years and ensuring media works across smaller screens is essential today. Smart phones are typically used by the younger generation of adults, so it is important to have effective media on these devices to better gain the attention of the younger demographic. To tackle this, Dumb Ways to Die created its own smart phone game, which also gave users prompts to ‘make the pledge’.

Smartphone Ownership Highest Among Young Adults, Those With High Income/Education Levels

(Pew Research center, 2015)

The campaigns’ song was also made available on iTunes, further strengthening its place on smart phone devices.

In the table above, this particular study concludes that smart phone ownership is actually dominated by young adults. 85% of 18-29 year olds in the US owned a smartphone at the time of the survey. This reinforces the idea that in order to target a young generation, smart phone compatibility is essential.

Dumb Ways to Die also had (and still has) an accompanying Tumblr page where users were able to like and share various images depicting the cartoon characters dying in hilarious ways. This strategy helped incorporate a more ‘instant’ type of audience, where users can simply view an image and immediately be involved with the campaign. Posting on Tumblr also helped reach its target demographic much easier, as many young people use Tumblr frequently and are inclined to reblog (share) material they like, helping spread the campaign.

Demographics of Tumblr

(Pew Research Center, 2015)

As can be seen in another study from PEW Research Center, the 18-29 demographic represents the most dominate age group that use Tumblr. This is another example of McCann Melbourne and Metro Trains successfully using a medium that younger audiences frequently engage with.

Dumb Ways to Die also later released a children’s book, with the same concept of the Tumblr page. It simply depicted various scenes of the cartoon characters dying in dumb ways. This physical release incorporated a much younger audience, but an important one nonetheless.

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Dumb Ways to Die children’s book and figurine (Metro Trains, 2013).

Analysis

In many ways, the (almost unprecedented for its sector) success of Dumb Ways to Die is fascinating to examine. John Mescall, executive creative director at McCann Melbourne (the agency who created the Dumb Ways to Die campaign), said this about the model they used:

“Firstly, we decided to not adopt an advertising model, but a content model. Both the client and the agency were very determined to make the content good enough to compete against the things you would otherwise pay for. It had to be ‘a good ad’. If you’re making content you have to ask yourself honestly the question: would I pay to own this? If you are making content you have to make it as good as the stuff that people are buying on iTunes” (Roper, 2014).

This model clearly worked, with over 60 million dollars of revenue coming in from the various forms of media created by McCann Melbourne and Metro Trains. However, one of their biggest strokes of genius was allowing the users to create their own content. In fact, Metro Trains facilitated this and effectively encouraged people to share and remix the content; a dedicated Tumblr site was set up to get the content ‘out there’. By not censoring or speaking out against user made content or remixes, any average person could join in and participate themselves. The fact that Metro Trains sat back and simply rode the wave is a major reason that the campaign was able to bloom into the successful franchise it is now.

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Dumb Ways to Die plush toys. These are just another example of McCann’s and Metro’s willingness and ability to explore different mediums and create a larger franchise along the way (Metro Trains, 2016).

The fact is, Dumb Ways to Die has now become a franchise that rivals others such as Angry Birds. While the campaign’s success could be attributed to luck – as getting something to go ‘viral’ usually involves a degree of luck – the creators have also been very clever. For example, Emily Lubitz, the vocalist for the song, was specifically chosen as her voice would appeal to overseas markets such as USA and England (Roper, 2014). Additionally, the animations contain references to North American culture, such as grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, moose’s and psycho killers. This was done intentionally as the Internet removes geographical barriers, so in order for something to go viral, it must appeal to worldwide audiences. This is especially important considering that Australia is, relatively speaking, a very small sector of the English speaking community. John Mescall said himself:

“The easiest way for us to get a 12 year-old in Melbourne to get interested in something from Melbourne is to make it globally popular. It used to be ‘Think global, act local.’ That’s no longer true; we need to think and act global” (Roper, 2014).

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Dumb Ways to Die incorporates North American animals, such as grizzly bears, in order to appeal to a worldwide audience (Metro Trains, 2012).

Another intriguing aspect of Dumb Ways to Die is how the different platforms and content combine to create a whole that is worth more than the sum of its parts. This idea was identified by Jenkins (2008) as being used in The Matrix film series and creates an immersive experience for the viewer. Jenkins identifies this as a distinguishing feature of trans media productions. In the case of Dumb Ways to Die, this is achieved by utilising the different platforms to their potential and thus giving them each their own uniqueness. For example, the song is easy to sing along to – even a karaoke version is available –  and allows people to participate in that way. On the other hand, the smart phone game allows a user to enter the world of Dumb Ways to Die and help save characters from their grisly deaths. Finally, the real world posters in train stations bring the message of Dumb Ways to Die into a real world situation, where the colourful cartoon catches the eye of a bystander and reminds them to be safe around trains. In a separate paper, Jenkins (2007) also talks about synergy; where a cross media producer should strive “to spread its brand or expand its franchises across as many different media platforms as possible”. Dumb Ways to Die has obviously done this by continually expanding to more platforms. This is similar to a theory that Hayes (2006) regards as being essential in modern cross media productions; “bath the audience in a sea of your original inextricably linked content across continents of devices, let them find their own path to live their own story”.

Hayes’s theory is evident in Dumb Ways to Die; namely in the way that the audience can create their own experience by working their way through the various content, such as the game, plush toys, karaoke song or even remixing/creating their own content. Hayes also explained that cross media productions can be qualified on different levels, depending on how well they link the platforms and content together. Dumb Ways to Die displays the ‘bridges’ level (level 3.0) – the way that the different platforms link to each other and point to each other. However, the campaign shows more traits that relate to Hayes’s ‘extras’ level (level 2.0); where one piece of content is originally created, and as it experiences success, other content is released through separate platforms to build upon the original piece. In the case of Dumb Ways to Die, the original work is the song, while the other content has followed since then.

In Jenkin’s (2007) analysis of trans-media, he states the audience’s ability to create their own content and drive their own story. People’s reaction to Dumb Ways to Die was very positive and people were able to create their own versions and covers. This meant people were more personally invested in the whole story of Dumb Ways to Die and audience members were able to explore more content that was related to the original message.

Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements, working them over through their speculations, until they take on a life of their own (Jenkins, 2007).

In summary then, it is clear that McCann Melbourne and Metro Trains have been very intentional about how to give Dumb Ways to Die the best possible chance they could at succeeding as a public safety campaign. The fact that it has changed from a PSA into a franchise that has its own place in popular culture is a testament to its success. By creating high quality, immersive, original material across a range of mediums, McCann and Metro have created an international phenomenon that doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.

References (APA)

Brand News. (2013, June 18). DUMB WAYS TO DIE – case study [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/IxZ_ZznO2ek

DumbWays2Die. (2012, November 14). Dumb Ways to Die [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJNR2EpS0jw

Hayes, G. (2006). Cross-Media – What Audiences Want. Peronalizemedia.com (November 2006). Available at http://www.personalizemedia.com/cross-media-what-audiences-want/

iTunes. (2012). iTunes Top Songs [chart]. Apple Inc, Cupertino, California.

Jenkins, H. (2007). Transmedia Storytelling 101. Confessions of an Aca-Fan (March 2007). Available at http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html

Jenkins, H., & Deuze, M. (2008). Editorial: Convergence Culture. Convergence: The International Journal Of Research Into New Media Technologies, 14(1), 5-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1354856507084415

Mescall, J. (2012). Dumb Ways to Die [Recorded by Tangerine Kitty]. [MP3 file]. Melbourne, Victoria: Metro Trains Melbourne.

Metro Trains Melbourne. (2013). Dumb Ways to Die [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from http://itunes.apple.com 

Metro Trains Melbourne. (2013). Dumb Ways to Die poster [Image]. Retrieved from: http://www.coloribus.com/adsarchive/outdoor-online/metro-trains-dumb-ways-to-die-18342605/

Metro Trains Melbourne. (2016). Dumb Ways to Die plush toys [Image]. Retrieved from https://shop.dumbwaystodie.com/

Operation Lifesaver. (2016). Operation Lifesaver poster [Image]. Retrieved from http://oli.org/news/view/OLI-awards-for-rail-safety-public-education-and-PSAs

PEW Research Centre. (2015). Chapter One: A Portrait of Smartphone Ownership (p. 3). Washington, DC: PEW Research Centre. Retrieved 1 March 2016, from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/chapter-one-a-portrait-of-smartphone-ownership/

PEW Research Center. (2015). Demographics of Tumblr (p. 5). Washington, DC: PEW Research centre. Retrieved 25 February 2016, from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/19/mobile-messaging-and-social-media-2015/2015-08-19_social-media-update_05/

Roper, P. (2014). Case Study – Metro Trains’ Dumb Ways to Die. The Best of Global Digital Marketing. Retrieved 28 February 2016, from http://www.best-marketing.eu/case-study-metro-trains-dumb-ways-to-die/

Team, W. (2014). Metro Trains: Dumb Ways to Die. WorldsBestCaseStudies.com. Retrieved 1 March 2016, from http://worldsbestcasestudies.com/transmedia/metro-trains-dumb-ways-to-die/