The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Dumb Ways to Die

Australians appear to have a perverse sense of humour.

Long before truant students were learning their lesson for skipping school, the Dumb Ways to Die public service announcement campaign designed by McCann Worldgroup for Melbourne Trains Metro (MTM) in Melbourne, Australia was already killing off its characters in perverse, albeit, humourous ways back in November 2012.

The campaign was designed to combat the increase of risky behaviour around trains. As mentioned by Neal Schaffer numerous times in his book Maximize your social a one-sep guide to building a social media strategy for marketing and business success knowing your audience is essential to success (2013). In fact the four rules for consumers was utilized incredibly by this campaign.

  1. Consumers are social.
  2. Consumers are mobile.
  3. Consumers are local.
  4. Consumers increasingly use multiple channels (Schaffer, 2013).

Social, Mobile, Multiple Channels

McCann knew that their audience wouldn’t respond to a generic, traditional (boring) public safety announcement, especially their younger digital-native riders. So they chose to follow the age-old adage, “you tell’em to do one thing they do the opposite.” That being said they transformed the message from one that their audience needed to hear to one they wanted to hear – embedding their actual “safety” message in the content. A clever tactic that greatly contributed to the amazing viral explosion the campaign experienced.

What makes Dumb Ways to Die (DWTD) so amazing (and intuitive) is that they knew their younger audience ( in fact most of their audience) were heavily reliant on their mobile phones, liked to share content and used multiple social media channels for communication, which was why in addition to the Youtube video they created a microsite for people to pledge to be safe, a tumblr account with a GIF for each death scenario, a Karaoke video, uploaded the song to iTunes and Soundcloud for download and, later in May 2013, developed a playable app that became the No. 2 app in more than 20 countries with 18 million downloads (AdvertisingAge, 2013).

They were/are a social media success story.

In two weeks the video received 20 million Youtube views and within a month it was the sixth most shared ad of all time receiving 1.7 million social shares in the first month, the song charted in over 20 countries on iTunes and was played on radio stations, over 100 cover versions of the song were created (Digital Showcase, n.d.), and within two week the video spawned 85 parodies.


The song is horrifyingly catchy and today, the original video posted on Youtube has received 70,920,621 views. However, despite its global popularity the company still focused on addressing the problem by advertising directly to their primary customer, the MTM rider, by creating local promotional materials that only their specific audience would ever see.

  1. Outdoor posters. Passersby can now shoot themselves alongside their favourite campaign character and press a giant button to take a pledge to be more cautious around trains.
    A picture of a jell"being" having its privates chewed by pirahanas.
    An outdoor poster for the DWTD campaign (Digital Showcase, n.d.).

    Outdoor Pledge wall mural
    Outdoor display for DWTD (Advertising Age, 2013).
  2. Books. The video was published in informational books, which were created to be used as teaching materials.

    Picture of DWTD book
    (Advertising Age, 2013).
  3. The campaigns’ many social media platforms allows for fandom support and cultivation. Be it nail designs, sculpture, drawing, cake pops, parodies etc. DWTD (Dumb Ways to Die) continues to be a fandom lovechild.
    Picture of DWTD nail art.
    Fandom nail art (Digital Showcase, n.d.).

    Images of different DWTD fandom pieces.
    Collection of fandom activities (Digital Showcase, n.d.).

The Good: The campaign was designed to be inherently spreadable and it achieved amazing results not only locally, by reaching 46% of their target audience and reducing train related accidents by 20%, but also globally by earning $60 million in media impressions (AdvertisingAge, 2013). It was a social media marvel that went viral.

The Bad: It has been pointed out that non-suicidal deaths only account for 25% of all rail fatalities on the MTM, but the video only addresses “these accidents” and not the real problem, which is that 75% of fatalities that are the result of suicide on the rail system. That means the entire campaign was designed around the lowest cause of death. Those who truly examine the video are quick to note that many of the “dumb ways to die” are all acts of suicide (as was pointed out in the documentary Hidden Tragedy of Rail Suicides)(Safety and Risk Management, n.d.a).  Therefore, some countries, like Russia, banned the entire campaign.

In addition, many people decry the entire campaign as not addressing the real problem as statistics revealed that the near misses at rail crossings had not only increased but were now significantly (14%) higher than they were 5 years ago (Safety and Risk Management, n.d.b).

The Ugly: Like when you give creative license to any audience they sometimes take it too far. One of the most popular parodies created Fun Ways to Die had helpful tips on how to kill yourself.

Final Verdict

The social media Dumb Ways to Die was great. It was effective. It went viral. It got the attention of media around the globe and by all accounts was deemed a success earning numerous awards and cursing everyone, myself included, to listen to the jingle on repeat for hours. But is that where the puck stops?

As a social media campaign they did everything right. They targeted their audience and understood the mediums and channels that they used. The campaign became a social media phenomena, after all. They created unique, memorable, engaging content that even today is still highly popular. They provided content specifically for their local audience. They were in the eyes of the Internet a success.

When the ad first came out I loved it, catchy song, non-gender specific, choreographed dancing jelly“beings” getting axed off in rhyme. To me it was a winner. But looking over the statistics now it didn’t do what it was supposed to. It didn’t fix the problem – in fact it would be interesting to see if this video promoted harm rather then reduced it. This is one campaign where it’s unintended consequences might be worse then its success.


AdvertisingAge. (2013). How ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ Won the Internet, Became the No. 1 Campaign of the Year. Retrieved February 6, 2014, from

Digital Showcase. (n.d.). Dumb Ways to Die. Retrieved February 6, 2014, from

Safety and Risk Management. (n.d.a). Dumb Ways to Die and a Strange Sense of Success. Retrieved February 6, 2014, from

Safety and Risk Management. (n.d.b). Dumb Ways to Measure Effectiveness. Retrieved February 6, 2014, from

Schaffer, N. (2013). Maximize your social a one-sep guide to building a social media strategy for marketing and business success. Hoboken, New Jersey: Windmills


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