Funny and likeable – my strategy creating Dumb Ways to Die

In this guest post, John Mescall, the creator of the most successful viral ad in Australian history, reveals its secrets.

How did Dumb Ways to Die become Australia’s most successful viral brand video ever? That’s a very good question, and while I don’t think I have a definitive answer, I can at least tell you what we did and why we did it. Maybe it’ll help.

A lot of people think that ‘going viral’ is some totally random occurrence that you can neither plan for, nor anticipate. But while it’s true that you can never really be sure how successful you’re going to be, there are a few things you can do to at least maximise your chances of success.

Firstly, we had a good idea. That bit’s critical obviously. But this idea came from an absolute truth: trains are the most predictable things on earth, and to be brutally honest if you decide to walk across train tracks between the platforms and don’t see a train coming and get hit by it… well, it’s your own dumb fault.

Not many advertisers allow themselves to be that honest about things, but Metro did and that’s a great starting point. In a world dominated by spin, honesty in itself can be disarming and refreshing. I think the title helps. I’m a big believer in titles, and as advertising moves from paid interruptions to a storytelling model, it’s something we all should pay much more attention to. Titles sell books, and they sell movies. Your campaign needs a good title.

Dumb Ways to Die is a good title because it’s succinct, evocative and very suggestive of reward-for-effort. Who wouldn’t click on ‘dumb ways to die’? If we titled this piece ‘Be safe around trains’ would it have worked as well? Not a chance.

Our next decision, and the critical one really, was how to execute this. I grew up with Dr. Suess, and I always admired his ability to talk to a specific target audience (kids) while also appealing to everyone else. Pixar does this brilliantly too. So while our bullseye was young people, we always wanted to make something that practically everyone could like.

Likeability is hugely important. Five kinds of things go viral: violence, sex, extreme awesomeness, funny or super likable/cute. Violence and sex is usually out for most brands, we couldn’t think of anything extremely awesome… so that left us with funny or super cute. We figured we’d double our chances and combine them both.

The decision to mix a morbid subject matter with saccharine levels of cute is what ultimately made it funny I think. The lyrics were written with the visual story in mind: this had to work both as a song and as something the animator could work with. On a side note, I’m one of those people who listen to songs for the lyrics, so I’m quietly pleased to have written the words to a song that’s doing ok on iTunes.

The music itself was obviously vital. We were adamant that this couldn’t be an advertising piece of music – we wanted this to exist as a song in its own right. Fair to say the composer nailed it.

The rest of the time was spent making the video as funny and likeable as possible. Not just that, but to load it with so many moments, you finish watching it and want to watch it again.

Anyone who’s ever made a commercial knows that there always comes a point when you’ve seen/heard it so many times during production that it drives you insane. But with Dumb Ways to Die, that moment never came. We’d all seen and heard it a hundred times, yet whenever it aired in the agency, people still stopped to look.

That’s when I first thought “shit, this is seriously going to work”. Most people who see it want to watch it more than once. That augers well for both saliency of message, and shareability.

Ultimately, it’s an ad that doesn’t feel anything like an ad. It’s happy and silly and joyful and clever and more than a little odd; the intangible things that are so hard to rationalise, but so very important.

And finally, but very importantly, we made sure the campaign was easy to share and discuss. That meant turning the whole thing into animated gifs for tumblr. Making the song downloadable via iTunes, soundcloud and our website. Not disabling comments on youtube. That kind of thing.

And that’s about it. Now I’m off to dance like a man who just sold both his kidneys for a big fat wad of cash.

John Mescall is the executive creative director of McCann Worldgroup Australia


  1. Who me bitter?
    19 Nov 12
    4:47 pm

  2. Call me a cynic, but am I the only one who can see a repeat of ‘The world’s greatest Job’ campaign claims to authorship coming through thick and fast on this wonderful and disarming campaign.

    “I did this”. “I did that”. “I got the coffee for the guy who worked with the session drummer”. “I was in reception at the same time this was pitched to the Client”.

    Spare me. Spare us all.

    Just enjoy and admire.

  3. derrick
    19 Nov 12
    5:11 pm

  4. dont see why

    Mescall wrote the words
    the guy from Cat Empire produced the track
    A girl with a nice voice sung it

    they’ll be loads more people involved than that though – and all of them should be very pleased right now

  5. Adam F
    19 Nov 12
    5:16 pm

  6. Brilliant work

  7. Offal Spokesperson
    19 Nov 12
    5:35 pm

  8. I was the first to comment on this hugely successful viral.

    oh… damn :)

  9. Not-so-bitter
    19 Nov 12
    6:19 pm

  10. Well done John to you and your team. And congratulations Metro for backing such a innovative piece of work.

    I for one have found myself wondering today (while trying to get those damn lyrics out of my head) how this video could have captured so much attention in so little time. Your rationale makes it clear this is not just some random event, but the well-earned result of a lot of careful creative thought and strategic preparation. I’m sure there are many others behind this work too and they all deserve hearty congratulations.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what else this campaign has in store for us. It has raised the bar for all of us, even those too bitter to acknowledge it just yet.

  11. Richard Moss
    19 Nov 12
    6:41 pm

  12. Yes, but the campaign is the result of a brilliant idea, or set of ideas. The relaxed style works brilliantly, because this kind of dumb death is so casually achieved.

    The comment about Dr Seuss is interesting, Dr Seuss did manage to do just as John claims, but don’t forget, Mr Geisel was an adult talking to a society who had grown up on cartoons, and I am sure he would have been as aware as anyone else, that it is adults who buy books, not children.

    Songs and poetry stay in the mind. Many an old actor could tell you, that from all the plays and parts one plays throughout a lifetime, it is Shakespeare who stays with you, long after you have forgotten the rest. Iambic Pentameter or Anapaestic meter are, like simple images, magical mnemonics.

  13. Ricki
    19 Nov 12
    6:45 pm

  14. Love it. Creativity at its best. Its gone viral, because it’s good. And sadly, thats rare. Congrats to all and ESPECIALLY the client for trusting your guts (no pun intended).

  15. Ok Then
    19 Nov 12
    8:50 pm

  16. Another component you missed out on here was money. Ok, there was no media spend but a lot obviously went into production.

    And as for people that try and say ad agencies ‘don’t get content’ etc Well in one swoop these guys have put that to bed.

  17. missky
    19 Nov 12
    10:12 pm

  18. I guess I am the only one here or in Melbourne that does not think this is good.

    Ok so the singing is cute, the characters are cute… i get that…but it takes us soooooo long to get to the point that this is a message about being safe around trains.

    And i’m sorry but what are the reactions to little kids seeing this clip? Remember that advert of a guy getting into a washing machine and then a kid seeing it and doing the same thing?

    I dont know… i just dont know about this.

    I’ll probably get slammed for it but its my 2 cents worth.


  19. Shamma
    19 Nov 12
    11:32 pm

  20. No denying this is very clever, very cute, super catchy and the animation is just brilliant.

  21. Richard Moss
    20 Nov 12
    12:23 am

  22. @ Missky

    You are under no pressure to like anything, at least you shouldn’t be. Say what you believe nobody can take that away from you.

    You may think it takes a long time to get to the point that there is a message about being safe around trains, but then again, What about Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina ?

  23. Ingo
    20 Nov 12
    1:46 am

  24. Damn you Missky! You spoke out against the consensus!! We hate people like you, thinking for yourself and all that. We will hunt you down and beat you up! Good thing it’s an anonymous post. Phew…

    Sorry, I just think it’s sad that you feel you have to apologise for having your own opinion. I quite liked the campaign, but if I didn’t, I’d be happy to say so. :)

  25. Ingo
    20 Nov 12
    1:52 am

  26. BTW, funny that there is no reference to Happy Tree Friends ( which was a huge hit some 5-6 years ago. The campaign must be in part inspired by this (and I mean that in a positive way).

  27. Shamma
    20 Nov 12
    10:09 am

  28. Who did the animation? It’s great!

  29. Kudos all round
    20 Nov 12
    10:33 am

  30. Great work McCann. And Bravo Metro. It would have been easy to kill this idea. Many would have. But look how successful it is. People all round the world would give more than a kidney to be involved in this.

  31. Brilliant
    20 Nov 12
    10:34 am

  32. Just brilliant.
    Well done to everyone involved.

  33. Sandy Line
    20 Nov 12
    11:16 am

  34. The real congrats should go to the client! How many award winning concepts never see the light of day… Yes its a nice idea but it took the balls of Metro to approve and run with it. The real cred goes to them…

    … i wish we all had clients like that.

  35. @shamma
    20 Nov 12
    11:17 am

  36. Animation is by the wonderfully talented Julian Frost

  37. Tom
    20 Nov 12
    11:46 am

  38. Ignore the haters who reckon it takes too long to get to the Very Important Message. They don’t understand that not everyone has a 15-second attention span. The very fact that the key message takes so long to materialise is why this video works. It’s captivating until the very end. I suspect you’d have viewers switch off half way if the (let’s be honest) not-terribly-exciting message was conveyed earlier.

  39. Bob
    20 Nov 12
    11:49 am

  40. @ Richard Moss – Anna Karenina is a bit of a stretch as an analogy….

    While I admire the production values and the number of views to date, I can’t help wonder if the clips cuteness and likability will count against message comprehension?

    I think jingles work particularly well when the hook is for the desired action/behavioral change. Feel like a Tooheys – or two? Dumb way to die?

    I wonder.

  41. advertiser
    20 Nov 12
    11:58 am

  42. yes, the client has to really be congratulated.

    obviously, the agency has earned this trust, and metro are being rewarded for taking a little risk – which it isn’t from a pure solution to a problem point of view, but a risk from potentially upsetting ‘sensitive people’ who might complain. but they’re really a minority, who unfortunately sway a lot of clients to make stuff boring.

    but it goes to show how important account management are in this whole process too. betcha the suits who sold this in are being looked at carefully by other agencies!

  43. B
    20 Nov 12
    12:01 pm

  44. Please tell me they are going to make collectable toys.

  45. Adam Vincenzini
    20 Nov 12
    12:11 pm

  46. A lot of talk has been about the content, but what hasn’t been discussed is the seeding and optimisation process.
    The biggest external referral source in the first 24 hours was
    I’m not sure if it was a sponsored post on Reddit or it was powered by an upload from a power user but that suggests some thought went into the ‘organic’ promotion of the video. Sue the content is phenomenal, but without some hard work done as soon as ‘publish’ has been hit, videos struggle gather the momentum they need to break into the most viewed / popular pages on YouTube.
    Great work by all involved.

  47. Richard Moss
    20 Nov 12
    12:40 pm

  48. @ B

    What do you envisage? Plush toys that break in half and bleed ?

  49. Shamma
    20 Nov 12
    12:52 pm

  50. Thanks @11:17

    Love the animation!

  51. Emily
    20 Nov 12
    1:05 pm

  52. I think the animator Julian Frost deserves some more kudos. It takes a lot to bring those characters to life and he’s done a great job at doing so!

  53. Her
    20 Nov 12
    1:12 pm

  54. John aren’t most deaths to do with trains suicide related (eg wearing headphones walking on the tracks) was that part of the brief?

  55. nell_schofield
    20 Nov 12
    1:13 pm

  56. Tom your point has merit but you undermine your credibility by over-egging the pudding.

    You categorise anyone who thinks 3 minutes is too long to get to the message a ‘hater’ aka not accepting of the ‘consensus’ groupthink, which displays an uncritical, prejudiced and/or biased way of thinking.

    “They don’t understand that not everyone has a 15-second attention span”. No-one has alleged that. All they’re saying is it’s a big risk to hope your audience waits 3 minutes for your message.

    A more reasonable, mature and analytical response would be to say that the team have risked inserting the message in the last 10 seconds of a 180 second film because they were confident of the extremely high level of engagement the viewer would have with the cutesy, likeable material. They knew the trade off and were prepared to take the risk.

  57. Encyclic!
    20 Nov 12
    1:14 pm

  58. I’m a 23 year old cynic and I’ve watched the whole thing.

    Five times.

    Well done! =)

  59. Anonymous
    20 Nov 12
    1:16 pm

  60. Apparently the song is being played at train stations. And I hope similar outdoor executions continue.

    Now that awareness is through the roof, this should help people think twice around train stations.

  61. Alison_F
    20 Nov 12
    1:28 pm

  62. @advertiser… yeah, let’s congratulate the suits. Hahaha!

  63. derrick
    20 Nov 12
    1:48 pm

  64. id be interested to hear the distribution strategy and what was done to kick start the spread..

    John…care to divulge a little?

  65. John Mescall
    20 Nov 12
    1:52 pm

  66. @ Her

    As I understand it, the majority of train-related deaths are indeed suicides. However that didn’t form part of our brief. As much as I’d like to do something about the appallingly high suicide rate in Australia, the issue is deep and complex and demands a series of responses that would go far beyond the realms of an advertising campaign.

    This campaign was designed solely to help reduce accidental (and absolutely preventable) deaths and injuries caused by the large number of careless and, yes dumb, behaviours Metro staff witness every day.

    It’s very very early days, but I hope what we’re doing can help.

    And to others: you’re absolutely right. I think we all know you can’t do great work without a great client… and the team at Metro are just that.

  67. anonymous
    20 Nov 12
    2:52 pm

  68. @Alison_F Why not congratulate the suits? I think it’s a valid point that the suits at McCann have been able to sell such a risky idea. Creative isn’t absolutely everything.

  69. Her
    20 Nov 12
    4:12 pm

  70. Thanks John brilliant campaign and very well done.

  71. missky
    20 Nov 12
    4:14 pm

  72. I still dont like it.

  73. John Ham
    20 Nov 12
    5:39 pm

  74. A great lesson to clients and marketers.
    Can you imagine, with all those lyrics and graphic visuals of accidents, just how many moments in this ad could have been made safer, how much of it could have been sanitised.
    But real people out there (rather than target markets) like to hear your message in a fresh way. They don’t mind the edges kept on, they like the truth, in fact they are drawn to it, so long as it’s done in a charming or funny way.
    So choose some creative people who have the talent to do that and then let them do it.
    Congratulations client and agency guys for getting it right.

  75. Clive burcham
    20 Nov 12
    5:54 pm

  76. good on you John & those who stood by the idea

  77. dude
    20 Nov 12
    7:24 pm

  78. Would be great to know how many Australian views this clip got. Any chance of sharing that information after the views start to slow down?


  79. Jonathan
    20 Nov 12
    11:22 pm

  80. Catchy tune, great animation, tons of wonderful stats. Impact on behaviour will be virtually nothing. Advertising campaigns have never addressed complex problems. They’re just too shallow in impact. We’ve never addressed risk takers behaviours, whether its dangerous driving or drink driving or any other context. They are repeat offenders for deeper reasons than any ad can reach. Take aids for example, when is the last time you saw an ad for aids prevention? Health promotion practitioners realised long ago that you need to reach the key people within these communities to have any effect, hence reaching out to barmen in gay clubs. Or how prostate cancer in middle aged men was tackled through barbers. Ad campaigns deal in audiences and are therefore shallow. Real behaviour change efforts deal with actors, social practices and the system of influence through contextual inquiry. The guys who produced this did a great job with the brief but they, like all marketing and ad people, they’re not qualified to tackle these issues. Organisations should stop wasting their money on these efforts and engage qualified professionals in the field of behavioural change.

  81. James
    21 Nov 12
    11:55 am

  82. “Advertising campaigns have never addressed complex problems. They’re just too shallow in impact.”

    Ever heard of of an Australian ad by one Siimon Reynolds called The Grim Reaper, hon? It dramatically altered behaviour and saved countless lives. Simple communications can not only be beautiful: strategically accurate and well-crafted they can sometimes be dazzlingly effective.

    It’s been my experience that “qualified professionals in the field of behavioural change” can often achieve nothing but blowing hot air out of their arses.

  83. LC
    21 Nov 12
    12:05 pm

  84. Love this work and so great to see such success come out of Oz.

    However, in response to this article, – isn’t every ad agency in Oz currently trying to make work that is funny and likeable? Isn’t that what we always try and do. That is nothing new or insightful. And I would suggest the creators have made lots of other work which is “funny and likeable” but it hasn’t taken off like this.

    I always find it funny that when a piece of comms is successful that we all talk about WHY it was successful. however, you could apply the same principals to a load of other steaming piles which have been made.

    Some times things just come together at the right time.

    And it makes it all the more magic when it does.

  85. Jez
    21 Nov 12
    1:33 pm

  86. Damn catchy tune.
    Great, fun animation.
    Everyone recognises it pretty much instantly in the office. Bingo.
    Will it be effective? Nup.
    I’m not a ‘hater’, not jealous. I like it for what it is.
    But it’s not a great ‘ad’.
    The only, actual important bit is buried at the end – and it’s the weakest bit, really.
    However, it clearly wins the ‘gone viral’ award, and the “See? We know how to communicate in the modern era” vote, so who cares if it doesn’t work?
    That’s how we’re judging things these days (where’s that ‘Like’ button…).
    What it is is a PR win.
    The Metro ‘avoidable accident’ numbers will tell if it’s an advertising win.

  87. Jim
    21 Nov 12
    3:37 pm

  88. Christ I’m sick of people who say “its too long”

    You have ADD…get some treatment

  89. Will win Lions. Will not save lives.
    21 Nov 12
    3:38 pm

  90. I reckon this is ace. I am proud Aus (McCanns Melb FFS!!!!) has done something that has captured so much global attention and viral hits. I love the music and the animation. Think that I might even buy the full set of plushy dolls for Christmas presents.

    But John, I do know a family who lost their 16 yo daughter in an uncategorised accident with a train. Perhaps she was a suicide and your message wasn’t meant for her. We just don’t know. But every time you sing “dumb ways to die” I think of the pain of those words on her family and friends.

    Your song and your animation is beautiful, but if I were going to try to save lives, I’d be calling Grey and TAC.

    This is a fabulous, wonderful, mostly silly song and film. Catchy as. Will get a lot of love from juries. Won’t win an effie though, mores the pity.

  91. Tom
    21 Nov 12
    4:29 pm

  92. @James I wasn’t aware that one Siimon Reynolds had his Grim Reaper held to such scrutiny… by the way it is the last thing he worte of any note and has been living off it for three decades. As for the Dumb way to die, it is catchy and quirky and fune but all it has achieved thus far is get in front of a lot of people… this is not nor ever was the measurement of advertising effectiveness… real results are.

  93. Handsome
    21 Nov 12
    4:56 pm

  94. Whenever I see a picture of John Mescall, I think of Bernard Marx from Brave New World.

  95. DSQ 19
    22 Nov 12
    12:32 am

  96. I’m with you Missky.

  97. Pete the meat
    22 Nov 12
    8:46 am

  98. Anyone for Mr Men set to music?

  99. Commuter
    22 Nov 12
    1:38 pm

  100. Heh heh,
    Now we sit back and watch the mad scramble for idea ownership.
    Kudos to the singer, songwriter and animator without whom this ditty would be nothing.
    And whoever is picking up the iTunes royalties, please buy a few more trains with the loose change.

  101. Just a thought No.45
    22 Nov 12
    5:50 pm

  102. I agree this ad will be hard for some people to watch.

    But so would every ad that talks about being people killed by trains. In fact, graphic TAC-style ads would probably be worse.

    So to my mind, this is ok.

  103. monkeyboy
    22 Nov 12
    8:24 pm

  104. But why no credit for the animator(s), composer.. and any other creatives?? Looked like a team effort to me..

  105. John Mescall
    22 Nov 12
    9:05 pm

  106. @ monkeyboy. I was asked to write this piece to talk about why I thought it might have gone viral so quickly… there are plenty of other articles and sources listing all the credits. Of course it was and still is a huge team effort, and here is the full list of credits for you:

    Credits Executive Creative Director: John Mescall, Writer: John Mescall, Art Director: Pat Baron 
Animation: Julian Frost, Digital Team: Huey Groves, Christian Stocker, Group Account Director: Adrian Mills, Account Director: Alec Hussain, Senior Account Manager: Tamara Broman, Senior Producer: Mark Bradley, Producer: Cinnamon Darvall, Composer and producer: Oliver McGill. Metro Trains Head of Corporate Communication: Leah Waymark, Stakeholder Communications Advisor: Brad Voss, Marketing Manager: Chloe Alsop, Marketing Coordinator: Philippa Jamieson.

  107. here's hoping
    23 Nov 12
    11:43 am

  108. In my humble opinion, John Mescall’s AdNews column is the best written, most insightful, most entertaining ad column in Australia. ‘Dumb Ways To Die’ is simply proof he practices what he preaches.

  109. bob is a rabbit
    23 Nov 12
    4:04 pm

  110. Cute.

    I wonder if it appeals more to chicks than blokes? Who are the bigger risk-takers and involved in train accidents etc?

  111. Megan
    24 Nov 12
    4:06 am

  112. I watched a safety video. Out of choice. The whole thing, twice.

    And then I posted it on Facebook and told my kids about it.

    A safety video.

    You guys are BRILLIANT!

  113. @bob
    24 Nov 12
    2:18 pm

  114. surprisingly, given the hyper cuteness, it’s actually being viewed by more young men than women. Decapitations, shootings, mutilations, projectile vomit. exploding heads, killer wasps and electrocutions will do that I suppose.

  115. john
    24 Nov 12
    11:45 pm

  116. To the makers of this video:

    People running across the line between platforms are not dumb. THEY ARE COMMITTING SUICIDE.

    also this Mr Man rip off is not going to stop them.

  117. Ingmar Peldt
    27 Nov 12
    8:02 am

  118. ‘Augurs’ nor ‘augers’. That’s the drill, ha ha.

  119. lemay
    2 Dec 12
    1:58 am

  120. Interestingly, among all the comments, I have yet to see the most important one – and the reason presumably that this campaign was created. And that is whether or not the campaign reduces deaths by dumbness around trains.

    let’s see those stats in 6 months, eh?

  121. @lemay
    2 Dec 12
    1:17 pm

  122. of course you haven’t seen any comments surrounding how effective this campaign has been. It just bloody launched!!


  123. Honey
    3 Dec 12
    2:13 pm

  124. OMG this is worse than the Wiggles. I can never “un-hear” that song! It must be working! Good job John.

  125. Dave
    7 Dec 12
    1:54 pm

  126. This is typical marketing patting itself on the back without looking at the bigger picture.

    We all keep going on about the number of views and the amount of times people watched it and OMG, a government funded organisation managed to do somthing so creative….. but has anyone talked about the impact? Is this really changing the way that people think about safety?

    Let us not forget that in Victoria, where this campaign was done, two people died in the past fortnight stepping in front of trains.

    Judging by the campaign stats, these two people would have seen the viral video and heard the song.

    Now they’re dead.

    Explain that one with your fancy viral stats :)