“Dumb Ways to Die” was named the best campaign of the decade at this year’s Asia-Pacific Tambuli Awards. And for good reason. What started off as a lighthearted message about staying safe around Melbourne, Australia’s commuter system trains has morphed into a entertainment property with 200 million app downloads, a quarter of billion video views, and 3 billion unique game plays.
“Dumb Ways to Die” has inspired other regional safety campaigns and has certainly reached an audience larger than the small creative team at Metro Trains Melbourne ever dreamed of in 2012.
As it expands, what keeps its popularity going? And as it becomes as much a mobile app game as a regional safety campaign, is it still achieving its original goal?
Designed in 2012 by McCann Melbourne as a way to “engage an audience that really doesn’t want to hear any kind of safety message,” “Dumb Ways to Die” is keeping the dumb ways to die coming with new dumb ways to die this month.
The campaign became a mobile game in 2012 and released a Part 2 game coinciding with the Rio 2016 Olympic Games this last summer. There are now even “Dumb Ways to Die” books and plush collectibles. Before winning the Asia-Pacific Tambuli Award, “Dumb Ways to Die” won the Grand Prix at the Integrated Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in 2013. The campaign also partnered with the Empire Life Insurance Co. in 2014 to offer products under the motto that “the dumbest way to die is without life insurance.”
Following the success of Melbourne’s campaign, other groups have flirted with similar messaging, though not to the same success. In Los Angeles this year, the transit authority went with a “gruesome” campaign that featured maimed stick figures. But maybe most similar to was a campaign from England’s Tyne & Wear Metro called “Use your brain near a train.” It also featured a musical number and the cartoon gruesomeness of Melbourne.
Melbourne certainly wasn’t the first transit group to think outside the box when it came to safety. Predating “Dumb Ways to Die” by a year was Norfolk Southern’s “Train Your Brain” message. Though this American creation never found a global audience, it did feature a mascot named Brainy, who was “a hapless, giant, wide-eyed pink walking brain in need of training.”
So why does “Dumb Ways to Die” resonate so successfully? It succeeds in part because of its grotesque adorableness and its easy transition to a gamified culture. Maybe the easiest way to think of it is as if Edward Gorey was the creative director for a special edition of Angry Birds. This tinge of horror coupled with childish cartoons helps the campaign cut through the noise.
But does it work? At this point, it’s hard to argue that the 200 millionth person who downloaded and played the app game had any contact with Melbourne transit—or any transit at all for that matter. In the first year of release, Metro Melbourne claimed the campaign had directly “cut the number of ‘near-miss’ accidents by more than 30 per cent.” (That claim of wild success did not go completely unchallenged.)
As could be expected, the growth of “Dumb Ways to Die” has slowed significantly with saturation. While its first video received over 140 million views (and counting), subsequent videos did only a fraction of that. Videos released a year ago were getting 4 million to 5 million views with only two of the seven videos released in the last year crossing the million views mark. Still, for a public service message it’s incredibly resonant.