Case Study: Metro Trains’ Dumb Ways to Die

Australia’s most awarded and talked about campaign in recent years is the Metro Trains ‘Dumb Ways to Die’. Indeed, this campaign by McCann Melbourne has achieved near-legendary status in advertising circles.

The campaign launch centred around a melodic music video featuring animated creatures who die in comically unintelligent ways, before finally highlighting that due to train predictability, accidental death due to contact with trains is quite possibly the dumbest way of all.

The seemingly simple brief on rail safety awareness achieved cult success on a global scale, in which the characters are now almost universally recognised. But one must ask the question: was the campaign truly effective? Did the campaign function to save lives?



Young people in Melbourne, Australia had exhibited absent minded and foolish behaviour around trains, some resulting in injury and death. Metro Trains approached McCann Melbourne with a basic brief for an awareness campaign, which could influence the audience to be more careful. However, the task is actually quite tricky because the old school ‘Don’t do this or that!’ doesn’t work with this audience. This generation is somewhat immune to advertising, especially when it’s telling them how to behave, so that a very special approach was needed to actually change behaviour in this case.

John Mescall, Executive Creative Director at McCann Melbourne, on the first steps: “Firstly, we decided to not adopt an advertising model, but a content model. Both the client and the agency were very determined to make the content good enough to compete against the things you would otherwise pay for. It had to be ‘a good ad’. If you’re making content you have to ask yourself honestly the question: would I pay to own this? If you are making content you have to make it as good as the stuff that people are buying on iTunes.”


In recent years, many digital/ advertising experts have debated the question of how to create a truly great viral campaign.

As John Mescall stated above, the content has to be great. Viral relies on shareability, so if the content is weak or obviously advertising – it won’t work. The idea has to be long-lasting and ideally renew itself from time to time in order to create a consistent fan base. ‘Generation Y’ expects to be involved, so whatever you do: it has to be interactive and entertaining. But what happens if you combine all the above?





The first step for McCann Melbourne and Metro Trains was to produce and record a music video entitled ‘Dumb Ways To Die’ (DWTD), which would become the main shareable piece of content. The video featured a cute song with morbidly ‘funny’ cartoon characters dying in ridiculous ways. It ended with a reference to the main point: railway safety. Soon after launch, the agency uploaded a karaoke version.

The video was originally seeded to a single reporter! Here’s how it worked in the words of John Mescall, Executive Creative Director at McCann Melbourne: “It was the transport topic reporter for Melbourne’s main newspaper. We thought that he could contextualise the campaign well for us, because he understood the issue of rail safety. We knew that there was a novelty value to the campaign so we wanted the first report on the campaign to be on the issue we tackle. He did that!”


After the successful launch of the video, McCann Melbourne went on to generate more content including gifs and a downloadable song on iTunes. DWTD even featured on Reddit’s front page.

“We worked hard to create a lot of content around the video. We developed a lot of assets to make it easy for people to share. There was also a small amount of traditional media centred in Melbourne on the rail system. Even if it wouldn’t gone viral it would have still communicated in a local market. We were working on it for two months and it got more and more popular inside the agency. Often you get quite sick of these things as you’re making them. We never got sick of it. If anything is ‘happy’ then there is repeat viewing and will work well on social platforms,” says John Mescall.

A free smartphone game and a children’s book followed. A website invited people to take a pledge: not to do dumb things around trains. Supporting posters and karaoke versions at the stations bolstered the campaign. Radio stations picked up the song and broadcast it to its listeners.


As if there wasn’t enough of everything already, people started to upload their spoofs of the song on YouTube. The client and agency had now truly handed their work over to the people. Content was generated by the audience.


“We work a lot in social media PR. A big amount of the work we do here is not necessarily made for paid media. You can’t predict creative success, but we knew it had the ingredients to be really popular in social,” John Mescall from McCann Melbourne on what it takes to create a social success.

It might seem that making a cute morbidly funny shareable song and seeding it cleverly was all it took. Well actually no. There was some detailed thinking behind the campaign. For instance, the animals featured in the video don’t actually live in Australia, these are North American inhabitants! That’s because Australia is a relatively small English-speaking market and if you want anything to become really successful locally, you have to make it popular in other English-speaking markets first. Even the tone of voice of the singer (Emily Lubitz from the Melbourne band, Tinpan Orange) was carefully handpicked to give off ‘the right vibe’!


Surprisingly, not everyone approved it. Roskomnadzor, the Russian government agency in charge of Internet censorship, thought that the lyrics and visuals contain too many ideas for committing suicide. They didn’t want young Russians to be influenced in that direction.

Here’s what John Mescall thinks: “Perhaps, children are smarter than governments? What we had anecdotally is kids saying that they used to hide in the dryer, but they’re not going to do that after seeing the video. Overall it still has a beneficial effect.”



The campaign was massively successful (in terms of numbers). In April 2014, the video has been viewed 77 million times on YouTube. The game became No. 1 free app in 21 countries including USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and Germany and it reached top 100 in 101 countries, top 1,000 in 148 countries. In six weeks, DWTD gathered an estimated $60 million in earned media.

John Mescall, Executive Creative Director at McCann Melbourne, adds: “We look at it as an Angry Birds franchise: we have a brand property that lives in entertainment and continues to evolve across different platforms. It is not just following it up with videos or another song, but actually using the assets we’ve got across different channels. It has moved outside advertising into popular culture. We have a lot to work with: music, characters, a tone of voice, etc.”


So, the numbers are spectacular, but we must not disregard the initial brief: an awareness campaign to decrease railway accidents. Here the numbers become less clear. A 21% reduction in railway accidents and near misses followed the campaign. But of course this is not solid proof of the effectiveness of the campaign. Some have accused the agency of feeding their egos instead of fighting the real cause. An ex-employee of Metro Trains called it “social media bullshit”.

John Mescall’s view on the subject: “Campaigns don’t live in a vacuum. It’s hard to tell if the numbers had anything to do with the campaign or it was just a lucky coincidence. They were supplied to us by the guys at Metro. This campaign is designed to give an entire generation a language through which they can actually discuss rail safety and put it on the agenda for people. But we did have a short term result in the numbers. What strengthened the campaign aside from the short term results is the fact that rail safety is not invisible anymore. We carved out a territory so people can now actually talk about it. An advertising campaign can often have a short term effect.”


“We continue to update the existing game. We are in the early stages of developing a follow up game with merchandising partners around the world. We are releasing new videos on a monthly basis: a Valentine’s Day edition, April Fools’ edition, etc. All the safety messages are always tied back to railway safety,” John Mescall, on the status now.



Dumb Ways to Die started from a truly engaging and well thought-through piece of content. McCann Melbourne figured out the right way to reach a young audience who no longer respond to traditional advertising and being told what to do. The content has to be so good that people would be willing to pay for it.


If you want your message to go viral you have to let go. John Mescall, Executive Creative Director from McCann Melbourne, shares his lesson: “We live in an age where marketers have enormous power. Social media has given us the possibility to influence like never before, but you can only do that if you are willing to give up control. See your ideas as a start for something rather than the beginning and the end. Allow people to repurpose them, reimagine them. Then you’ll have the power to influence like never before. From day one, we encouraged people to make it their own. The day we launched the video, we also launched the karaoke version encouraging people to make their own parodies. Metro never claimed copyright, never stopped anything no matter how ridiculous the spoof was. You need to be confident enough to put your work out there and allow people to take ownership over it. Creativity takes many different forms and in this case it’s the willingness to take a leap and a risk.”


As mentioned above, North American animals were used in the video. That’s because the video had to go viral first, later it would catch the attention of the real target audience. We could say the web has made geography obsolete.

In the words of John Mescall: ”The internet is a global bridge. There are no national boundaries. I think the best way to make something popular in a local market is to make it globally popular. That’s the way people consume content and media now. Country or origin doesn’t matter if you live your life online. If you look at your Facebook feed, you’ve got friends all over the world and it doesn’t really matter where people are geographically. The easiest way for us to get a 12 year-old in Melbourne to get interested in something from Melbourne is to make it globally popular. It used to be ‘Think global, act local.’ That’s no longer true; we need to think and act global.”


The campaign still lives on. If the agency had settled on the video and some posters, chances are, they would have been forgotten quite quickly. Instead, they kept it going: a video, karaoke version, spoofs, posters, game, book, merchandise, etc. Dumb Ways to Die is a longterm franchise which shows no signs of fading away.


Peter Roper


“What is there left to say about ‘Dumb Ways to Die’? It’s hardly even accurate to call it a campaign as it’s more like a franchise now, a property with huge spin-off potential. As a Melbourne native, however, I feel I can add some local perspective. For the ad industry, DWTD has been part of a trend in recent years of world-class creative coming out of Melbourne, rivalling the much bigger Sydney.

The global audience that this thing reached won’t have seen the local activations that link to the campaign, such as the train station walls plastered with decals of the gory-cute characters.

But while viral success is great, the real objective – reducing accidental deaths involving trains – remains the elephant in the room. I’d like to see more detail than the ‘21% reduction’ stat.

I think the key learning from this campaign is that, for all creative ideas, distribution is equally as important as creative. Maybe even more so. By that I mean, since a brilliant video that nobody sees is worth absolutely nothing. But an average video that at least gets a little bit of message across, distributed adequately, has some effect. (Ideally, your video/poster/toy excels in both creative and distribution, like ‘Dumb Ways to Die’). The McCann Melbourne team chose their distribution channels extremely well, using platforms like Tumblr, which is under-utilised by marketers, to perfection.”



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