Astonishing Tales of Content Marketing: Smart Marketing, Dumb Ways to Die

June 25, 2016

Astonishing Tales of Content Marketing

Editor’s Note: In the Astonishing Tales of Content Marketing series, we reflect on the visionaries past and present who excel at content marketing. Last time, we learned how Volvo made high art with two big rigs and an aging action movie star. This time, we look at how a public safety campaign in Australia became a worldwide phenomenon.

There’s a movement underway to add humor and personality to marketing. I’m a major supporter of that movement. There’s no substitute for human emotion when you’re trying to make a connection with your audience.

Surely, though, there are times when humor is strictly inappropriate. For example, say you work for a staid, buttoned-down industry like public transportation. Now imagine you’re in that industry and need to get across a serious, life-or-death public safety message. You should absolutely avoid humor and personality in this context.

Unless, that is, you want to create a worldwide multimedia phenomenon, like Australia’s Metro Trains Melbourne did with their video Dumb Ways to Die:

Those adorable, disaster-prone animated beans became a runaway viral hit in 2012. The video currently sits at over 100 million views on YouTube. The soundtrack tune cracked the Top 100 in the Netherlands and hit #38 on the UK Indie charts. Two spinoff games racked up millions of downloads.

So how did a public safety announcement become such a smashing success? Read on.

The Message People Need (But Don’t Want) to Hear

Metro Trains Melbourne had an important message to get across: Be safe around trains, whether you’re driving near tracks or waiting on a platform. In the past, PSAs about train safety could be downright grisly affairs. They were live-action, dead serious morality plays with much implied gore. The kind of message that made you change the channel, or hide your eyes when the teacher played it on 8mm film at school.

For their new train safety campaign, Metro Trains Melbourne decided to do something different. Instead of starting with the message and crafting dire visuals around it, they wanted to create something people would enjoy watching, something that would compel them to like and share it. In other words, a Trojan horse that could sneak in their serious message to far more people than a blunt approach would reach.

The company had a limited budget for their creation, far less than the cost of one TV ad. So they knew the campaign needed to be memorable and irresistible to create the viral boost they needed.

Gentle Tunes and Cartoony Gore

Metro Trains Melbourne turned to agency McCann Melbourne to create the ad. Their concept came from interviews with platform staff and drivers, who saw firsthand people taking foolish risks around trains. They quickly hit on a central idea: Trains are massive, make a lot of noise, and travel predictable routes in a straight line. Getting hit by one is a (say it with me) dumb way to die. So why not start with some exaggeratedly unrealistic other dumb ways to die? Why not suggest that death by train is comparable to, say, donating both of your kidneys to strangers on the Internet?

The agency sweetened their gruesome premise with a simplistic, cute animation style. Even with the gory subject matter, it looks more like a children’s book than a horror movie. To further raise the cute factor, they enlisted two local indie musicians to play the twinkly, twee tune that accompanies the ad.

A Viral Smash – And a Little Backlash

The combination of cute cartoons, catchy music, and gruesome subject matter was an instant smash hit. Just 72 hours after the initial upload, the video had nearly 5 million views. In the first two weeks, it racked up 30 million.

Metro Trains and McCann had captured lightning in a bottle. Fortunately, they were quick to react and help the campaign continue to spread. They released a single of the song onto iTunes, followed by a karaoke version for sing-alongs. Six months later, they gave the campaign another boost with the first Dumb Ways to Die game for iOS devices, followed by a sequel in 2014. And they made sure the campaign’s message was getting through with themed materials teachers could use in public schools.

The runaway success wasn’t without its detractors, of course. Some said the cute packaging wasn’t enough to disguise the gory undertones of the campaign. Some claimed it took tragedy too lightly. But the negative press didn’t have the numbers or the momentum of the initial campaign, and all it did was feed the publicity engine. All told, over 700 media outlets covered the campaign.

Death by the Numbers

It’s safe to say Dumb Ways to Die was an unprecedented success. Here are just a few of the numbers:

  • Over 100 million views of the original video
  • Song cracked the top 10 Downloads iTunes chart
  • Game app hit number one in 17 countries
  • Over 14 million downloads of the game app
  • Campaign won seven Webby Awards, Best of Show at One Show in New York, and the Grand Trophy in the 2013 New York Festivals International Advertising Awards

What’s more, Metro Trains Melbourne says the campaign got its message across loud and clear. They say it contributed to a 30% reduction in “near-miss” train accidents in the first year after the video’s release.

Smart Takeaways from Dumb Ways to Die:

What can smart marketers learn from Dumb Ways to Die? Here are a few tricks worth borrowing.

Take Full Advantage of Rich Media: The video is a complete package: a funny premise, great animation, and a catchy tune. Without any one of those elements, it might have missed its viral status.

Take a Risk: McCann Melbourne wasn’t afraid to court controversy to grab people’s attention. Their bold, weird idea looks genius in retrospect—but it must have seemed like a massive risk at the time.

Use Multiple Channels: The campaign built on its early popularity by expanding into music downloads, games, even stuffed toys.

Put the Audience First: Metro Trains knew people didn’t want to watch another dull PSA about train safety. So they didn’t force people to. They made something that was intrinsically entertaining, then brought in the message after they set the hook.

Stay on Message: As silly as the video is, it ties directly into the brand’s central message. There’s no non sequitur switch from the humor to the message; they’re seamlessly integrated.

Metro Trains and McCann Melbourne made a PSA about train safety into a smash global hit. Millions of people who will never ride a train in Australia liked the video, shared it, and came back for more.

How good was this campaign? So good that it created Dumb Ways to Die as a new worldwide, multimedia brand that is still going strong four years after the first video. Now that’s a truly astonishing tale of content marketing.

For more tips from smart marketers for smart marketers, download The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to Content Marketing.