It’s not often that a local public safety campaign goes on to become a global gaming hit, but that’s exactly what happened with ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ — a quirky marketing strategy turned viral sensation.
Launched in 2012, the Dumb Ways to Die campaign was developed for Metro Trains by advertising agency McCann as a way to address risky behaviour around railways. Metro were concerned about the number of young people who put their lives at risk by trespassing onto tracks or driving around boom gates at level crossings. But they also knew that they couldn’t get preachy or wag fingers because their target audience would tune out.
The brief they gave McCann was something of an anti-brief. “It wasn’t so much about what we wanted, but rather what we didn’t want,” says Leah Waymark, CEO of Dumb. “We didn’t want to create any fear or concern about people being safe on the network, because it is a safe place if you follow a few basic rules.”
It took a while to come up with the right idea, but when McCann suggested a song the team at Metro knew they were on to something. The song, written by McCann’s John Mescall, lists numerous ways one could meet an end, Darwin Awards-style – things like shaking up a wasp’s nest or donating both kidneys. Music by Ollie McGill of The Cat Empire and vocals from Emily Lubitz of Tinpan Orange provided indie pop cred. And the video, animated by Melbourne illustrator Julian Frost, features a bunch of cute critters (‘the beans’) demonstrating each gory demise, gathering together in an ever-growing line-up for the chorus.
The song was released on YouTube in November 2012, where it took off like a runaway train. It received 2.5 million views within the first two days and had been viewed 30 million times two weeks later. (It was around then that McCann released a karaoke version for hardcore fans – to date it has been viewed 6.5 million times.)
The Metro team barely knew what had hit them. “It was quite distracting in that first week,” says Leah. “I’m not sure how much real work I got done as we just kept watching these YouTube numbers climb to insane levels.” Over five years the original song has been viewed 163 million times, and the Dumb Ways to Die YouTube channel – which is updated regularly with seasonal content – has had over 300 million views.
It’s also the most-awarded advertisement of all time. In 2013 it won seven Webby Awards, three Siren Awards including the Gold Siren for best advertisement of the year, the Grand Trophy in the New York Festivals International Advertising Awards, a fistful of black and yellow pencils at the D&AD Awards, and a whopping 28 awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, including the Integrated Grand Prix.
With such a huge success on their hands, it wasn’t long before the Metro team’s thoughts turned to what they could do next to keep the message alive. Capitalising on the cute factor of Julian Frost’s character designs, they released a Dumb Ways to Die mobile game in May 2013. The aim of the game is to avoid dying in a series of hilarious situations, and players were invited to pledge to be safe around trains. Across the game and the website, 127 million people took the pledge.
The game was another hit for Metro, spawning a follow-up in November 2014 and a third version launching this month. A number of Dumb Ways to Die Junior games are also available for younger players. Overall, the games have been downloaded 300 million times and players have logged 6.5 billion game sessions.
“Ultimately, it comes back to the available channels to reach a particular audience, and young people are getting all their entertainment and content online these days,” says Leah. “That's where we need to be, and they've got such choice now that whatever we do has to be good entertainment and good fun.”
The Dumb team has also launched a range of merchandise, including socks, pyjamas and some very detailed plush toys. Leah says it’s a great way for parents to talk to their kids about rail safety. “My family wears the pyjamas,” she says. “Whatever we do we try and be a little bit different, and that means not following what everyone else is doing.”
The Dumb Ways to Die brand continues to grow. The song has spawned hundreds of parodies, and the campaign material has been licensed by public transport providers around the world.
But for all of its global success, Dumb Ways to Die is very much a local product. Almost every part of the cute but horrifying campaign was created here in Melbourne, from the original concept to the game design (version three has been developed by Melbourne design studio PlaySide). “We're really proud that this was created in Melbourne for Melbourne,” Leah says.
The Dumb Ways to Die 3: World Tour mobile game is now available to play on iOS and Android.