dumb ways to die, marketing campaign, public service announcement, going viral, social media marketing, tiktok, youtube, mobile gaming

Case Studies: Dumb Ways to Die and the lessons of going viral

“Eat a two-week-old unrefrigerated pie…” That sentence alone should send you into a chorus. Dumb Ways to Die is iconic. It’s a public health and safety campaign from Melbourne, Australia, made in 2012! And we bet, if you are familiar with Dumb Ways to Die at all, that none of that information was privy to you.

Instead, you’ll know the chorus to the song that is still going viral on TikTok as we speak, 11 years after its inception. “Dumb ways to die, so many dumb ways to die.”

You’ve got that earworm now, haven’t you?

Dumb Ways to Die was a video campaign made by Metro Trains to inform the public of the many near misses on the rails. Sure, there are two verses of random things that might kill you, like eating an old pie, but the bridge then brings the tempo down and informs the listener of all the near-misses the railway sees, like “stand on the edge of a train station platform”, “Drive around the boom gates at a level crossing” and “Run across the tracks between the platforms” as the dumbest ways to die.

So, what can we win from this cheery(?) song that has taken over TikTok far more than any record label could?

Tap into the inner child

As the McCann Melbourne agency that created Dumb Ways to Die put it: “The aim of this campaign is to engage an audience that really doesn’t want to hear any kind of safety message, and we think Dumb Ways to Die will.”

From that, we can infer that we’re talking about a more childish bunch there, whether they’re that way by their age or their intoxication level. Either way, you can see that every design aspect has been chosen to appeal to that audience. With Squishy, brightly coloured characters, a catchy jingle, a touch of parody (check out their album cover on Wikipedia), and a touch of dark humour, you’re on your way to something that is childish, but not for children. It’s a tricky balance to get right, but if you nail it, well…!

Make it catchy

The new lesson of this TikTok wave of social media is to appreciate the audio as much as the visual. Whether it was photos, videos, or even Reels, on Instagram, what you saw was more important than what you heard. On Facebook and Twitter, the written word was king. Now, people are turning on their volumes and watching – and listening.

So, it helps to have something catchy. When it comes to the spoken word, your users will soon tell you when your hilarious joke can be condensed into a “Sound”, but music is a little bit trickier. In fact, record labels are demanding that big names like Halsey, Sam Smith and Hozier go viral before releasing their music. So, artists are learning that boiling their art down to one earworm line is important. In Metro Trains Melbourne’s case, they didn’t need to try and just make a catchy song that people found humour in.

Your B-plot will be repurposed

It doesn’t hurt that this song also had a double meaning. It’s not unusual to not know where this song came from or its initial purpose of railroad safety. Instead, you’re more likely to hear “Dumb ways to die” while following, say, a skiing collision, or a drunk man falling over a wall. If it looks like a slapstick sketch, or in some cases, like a near-death moment, it’s going to have the sound on it. The former would have it ironically, the latter, not so much.

Take the Old Spice commercial as another example. The old “look to your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me” line has another life as a commentary that you can do better in your relationship and has been applied as such in a myriad of ways across the internet. There are swathes of memes that go “But if you [insert action here], he can be like me”.

Think about your message’s B-plot and see if there is any other secondary message that can speak to a universal truth. That’s already somewhat of a marketing 101. Cleaning products will constantly point out how “men are lazy/too dumb/another reason they can’t clean” which is just feeding into sexist tropes for both basic genders. If you can tap into a universal experience but with a new twist, you’ve hit gold.

Explore every avenue

It’s worth mentioning that in its 12 years on this Earth, Dumb Ways to Die has been released as a single, a mobile game that is still getting updated, an NFT, a YouTube channel, a partnership with Empire Life Insurance, and because this was 2012, a lot of publications compared it to Gangnam Style in its virality potential. The lesson is simple, if you have struck gold, show everyone in any way you can.


It’s worth pointing out that that single that was released reached number 9 in the charts in Belgium, 94 in the Netherlands and 38 on the UK Indie charts. Why Belgium felt a certain affinity to this song is anybody’s guess, but it’s obvious why the song charted, spawned dozens of parodies, and currently has almost 17 million plays on Spotify: it’s good. It’s legitimately good.

And we hasten to add that the song, nor its animation, was likely to go so viral without that element. So many “jingles” in ads are just annoying. This was a full song, with timeless animation, and timeless humour to boot. It’s not about to get annoying in a year the same way the GoCompare guy is, and after 11, it’s safe to say we’re proven right. If you want to go viral, put everything into it.

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