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EXCLUSIVE: The creators of ‘Dumb Ways To Die’ share the secrets behind Australia’s most successful viral ad ever.


Metro Trains’ ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ campaign might soon come to be regarded as Australia’s most successful viral advertising campaign… ever.

The quirky video and catchy tune amassed an amazing 30 million YouTube views in under 30 days, earning YouTube’s recognition as the video sharing behemoth’s sixth most viral video for 2012.

Shortly before Christmas, I caught up the the campaign’s creators, John Mescall and Adrian Mills of advertising agency McCann Melbourne. (You can watch the video below.) Shortly after recording the interview , I asked Mills to outline the reasons why he thought the campaign was so successful.

Here is what he said:

1. We didn’t jump on the ‘tram-wagon’

Yarra Trams Rhino icon

The ‘Rhino Campaign‘ promoting safety around trams had been very successful for Yarra Trams and the safest, most obvious route would have been to pursue a similar strategy.

But according to Mills, “Trams are dangerous. They are like silent tanks. But it takes real effort to be killed by a train.

“The Dumb Ways to Die Campaign was based on the simple articulation of a pure truth.”

2. The client did not wuss out when it came to death

“The video prompted 10 tweets in the first 10 minutes of going live. Seven were negative,” said Mills.

While this sort of initial reaction would normally give a major, conservative brand pause for thought, Metro Trains did not back down. In fact, “the project was not dumbed down but was dialed up as it went along.”

3. We resisted the urge to be a ‘control bully’

Gif from tumblr

McCann quickly released a Karaoke version, not to promote singalongs but as a way to encourage parodies.

“By providing the backing music, fans could create their own versions,” says Mills, who highlights the Walking Dead parody (below) as an awe-inspiring take, starring live actors recreating the campaign as Zombies.

McCann also created gifs of all the deaths to share on Tumblr and made the tune available on soundcloud.

4. The ‘c2‘ element is that it’s a train safety ad

When Mills shared this observation, I initially did not understand what he meant.

Like the ‘squared’ element in Albert Einstein’s famous equation, E= mc2, Mills thinks every campaign needs some edge which is unusual or novel. The comment made me think of an observation in Made to Stick by Dan and Heath Chip.

In Made to Stick, the authors talk about “breaking a person’s ‘guessing engine'” as a way to create ‘sticky’ or memorable advertising. This is the point I believe Mills was trying to make.

The advertisement is funny. It’s catchy. But, then, it’s about death! That made it contentious.

5. Never under-estimate the power of a niche group

While Mills acknowledges that an article in The Age made a big difference, “the train spotters found it first and started the momentum before it was even live. But, ultimately,” says Mills, “the campaign took a message that people needed to hear and turned it into something people wanted to hear.”

John Mescall, Adrian Mills, Dumb Ways to Die

The video that started it all

The Walking Dead Dumb Ways to Die Parody