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



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