Trigger Happy Series: Dumb Ways To Die Is Smart Way To Advertise

22.11.2012 by
Although it might not seem likely, horrific, painful violence might be the perfect ingredient for creating shareable content. One of this year’s biggest social video ads depicts cartoon characters meeting messy ends to a cheerful catchy tune. What makes this ad so successful?

Writes Andy Scofield

Melbourne Metro's Dumb Ways To Die has risen to the top of the Unruly Viral Video Chart in just under a week. Over the last seven days, the fun rail safety announcement has attracted an incredible 14 million views and 1.2 million shares, making it the seventh most shared ad of 2012 (so far).

But what has made it so popular? Why is an ad that simply trots out the same train safety messages we have heard since we were in primary school attracting so many shares in such a short space of time? How could a video featuring horrible deaths of cute, endearing creatures be anything other than unpleasant? Well, Melbourne Metro's PSA has a lot more up its sleeve than just cartoon carnage. 

It’s true that high arousal emotions drive sharing, and on paper Dumb Ways To Die’s vivid depiction of suffering and death should illicit plenty of these (mainly shock and disgust). But with the help of some cartoon critters and a fun song, it instead manages to be a fun, enjoyable experience to watch. 

Charities and various organisations have long used advertising over the years to spread their message, often using shocking or sad imagery to motivate us to donate, or scare us into obeying safety rules. But as advertising changes from something we avoid on TV to something we share on the internet, they have been forced to change their approach. After all, viewers are unlikely to share the grizzly scare tactics that worked on TV, so a more sophisticated breed of warning messages have evolved to suit sharable advertising.

There are a number of good examples of this in recent years. Embrace Life, a message from Sussex Safer Roads, used a slow motion, softly-shot sequence in which a man’s loving family rush throw their arms around him, filling in for his missing seat belt and saving his life. Rather than showing unfortunate bodies thrown through their windscreen, the ad humanises its message, encouraging motorists to think about the loved ones they would leave behind.

Another thought-provoking ad, Dear 16-Year-Old Me, explains all about skin cancer using the voices of those who have suffered from the disease as they warn their younger selves to protect themselves against the sun. Instead of hitting viewers with horror stories and dull facts, the ad uses humour and a real human connection to make the message memorable. To warn about the dangers of cancer, the ad actually finishes on a positive note, suggesting that viewers can help teach those they care about how to protect themselves against melanoma.

Even humour has found its way into serious messages. Vinnie Jones reprised his gangster persona to teach viewers how to perform CPR, while one of the most popular social video ads of all time, Your Man Reminder, manages to be funny, sexy and informative about breast cancer.

That’s not to say shocking no longer works. Network Rail released a clip taken from CCTV cameras at level crossings around the UK, showing people taking outrageous risks with oncoming trains. Issuing a similar warning, Dumb Ways To Die might appear to be a fun sing-a-long track, but it skilfully highlights the dangers associated with rail travel without resorting to preaching. By introducing cute creatures making dumb, and ultimately deadly, decisions, the ad is able to emphasise the stupidity of taking risks around trains. But which emotional triggers have made it so popular?



Violence, in the right context, has always been funny. From Tom and Jerry to Charlie Chaplin and Fawlty Towers, we’ve always been able to laugh at the slapstick sufferings of fictional characters. A clever mix of cute and other-worldly characters' self-induced suffering makes it perfectly acceptable to laugh at their pain, especially since they survive it to keep singing along.



The ad’s soundtrack is undeniably fun, encouraging viewers to take each line of the song as a fun, hummable joke. The whole piece gives off an air of enthusiastic glee, with even the most mangled of character keeping a happy grin as they dance along.



While the cartoon characters do make the ad safe to laugh at, the nature of their messy demises do trigger a low level of shock, as heads explode and rattlesnakes devour eyeballs. The ad stops short of being offensive and uses the “eew” reaction to help drive the humour.



Music videos are the most widely shared of all social videos and this clip makes use of that, using a song that is shareable in its own right and putting it to work to drive sharing. As the clip is a message from Melbourne Metro Trains, the makers have cleverly used famous musicians from the city to further generate interest and even drive downloads of the track on iTunes.

Just silly enough to be shared, but without compromising on the core message, the clip has earned more than 14 million views in less than a week and over 1.2 million shares. Let’s hope that the warning it carries is as memorable as the tune.

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