Commentary

'Dumb Ways To Die' Is Charmingly Gruesome

It’s hummable, shareable, and even snack-able, if you like cute, candy-colored animated blobs that look like Fruity Pebbles, but somehow end up decapitated, electrocuted, or oozing rare fluids from their bean-shaped bodies. (All in the most charming ways, of course.)

I speak of “Dumb Ways to Die,” the three-minute public service announcement for Metro Trains from McCann Melbourne --asking Australians kids to stay off the train tracks to prevent accidents on commuter rails -- that has swept the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Talk about blur: the spot has earned an unprecedented five Grand Prix: in the PR, Direct, Film, Radio, and Titanium and Integrated categories.  

And even better than earning all that award hardware, it has delivered as a public service message, resulting in a 21% reduction in accidents and deaths compared to the same period the previous year, according to Metro Trains. (The goal was 10%.)

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More than becoming a Smokey the Bear or Crying Indian for the 21st century, it gets into kids’ heads by turning a standard safety message into a catchy but morbid animated comic musical.

“We didn’t preach, we didn’t threaten, we didn’t lecture,” said John Mescall, the executive creative director at McCann, and copywriter on “Dumb,” who spoke about the making of the spot at a TED seminar in Cannes. (“Dumb Ways to Die” was also named one of TED’s 2013 “Ads Worth Spreading.” )

“We could have shown documentary film in which people get hit by trains,” he said. “But we were going for entertainment rather than shock value.”  

And because there was no media budget to speak of, it had to work organically. “We wanted to engage a young audience who are wired to resist lectures and warnings from authorities, but would share recommendations peer-to-peer. It allows you to call out your friends without losing your cred.”

And that’s the essence of viral -- an unexpected message that makes you look smart, cool, funny, and in-the-know for sending it.

Part of that secret was endless attention to detail. “People do not fall in love with ideas. Execution is everything,”  said Mescall.

It started with the song, scripted by Mescall with music by Ollie McGill from The Cat Empire, and performed by Emily Lubitz, the lead vocalist of Tinpan Orange. It was basically written in one long, booze-fueled night, according to Mescall.

Then the animator, Julian Frost, who took months, was chosen because “we liked his sense of humor.” (Indeed, at one point in the cartoon fest, one of the kidney-shaped blobs sells both of his kidneys.)

But it’s the unexpected juxtaposition of cutesy and gruesome -- let’s call it cutesome -- that seems so original. The song is simple and repetitive, like a nursery rhyme, and yet filled with horrifying lyrics that just keep building from this beginning verse: 

“Set fire to your hair,

Poke a stick at a grizzly bear,

Eat medicine that’s out of date,

Use your private parts as piranha bait.”

Then the animation proceeds with its own ferociously clever comic detail, as the cute little anthropomorphic beany characters follow the lyrics, getting electrocuted by laundry dryers or bitten by man-eating fish, for example. That’s twisted and funny. Even funnier, in their various undead states -- with severed heads, limbs chopped, etc. -- the beans continue to perform, line up, and sway to the beat.

The Metro Rail message doesn’t come into the picture until the last 30 seconds, treated as just one more dumb way to die.

"Dumb Ways" is now closing in on 50 million YouTube views; the song charted on iTunes in 28 countries; and the video has garnered over 3 million Facebook shares, making  it the most-shared PSA in history.

“We live in a visual age,” said Mescall at Cannes. “But nothing is more powerful than language used intelligently with artistry.”

1 comment about "'Dumb Ways To Die' Is Charmingly Gruesome".
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  1. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, June 24, 2013 at 8:10 p.m.

    I was expecting one of the "dumb ways to die" to be driving home after writing the song "in one long, booze-fueled night."

    ... but I guess the took the train?

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