Dumb Ways to Die” won five Grand Prix awards and 28 Cannes Lions awards in total.  Why do you think the ad was so successful? Did you expect it?

john-mescallWe had an inkling as we were making it that it actually might become very popular. Popularity and success are two slightly different things. It’s hard to have one without the other in social platforms.

We were very conscious that public service announcements, particularly those aimed at younger people, generally don’t work. There’s a history of failures in this category.

We studied PSAs and looked at the common denominators behind them all. There’s usually a message from an authority, they are usually warning you not to do something and suggesting horrible punishments if you do it, and they’re shocking and gruesome. PSAs are almost tailor-made not to work amongst young people.

We thought of approaching it from an entertainment model. Before viewers know it’s a warning not to do something  – because the minute you know that, the game is up – they’ve already engaged with it, enjoyed it and thought about sharing it.  

Is this branded content? Content marketing? Does it matter?

The campaign started with a song. It had to be good enough so people would actually buy it on iTunes. It’s not a jingle, it’s not a long ad, it’s a proper song and attributed to an artist we made up, called Tangerine Kitty.

The people we worked with, the musicians who did the music and the vocalists who sang it, don’t do advertising work and we deliberately chose them because we didn’t want it to feel like an ad.

Even great pieces of advertising don’t get shared on social media platforms anywhere near as much as things that don’t feel like ads.

How did you incentivize people to share the video?

We came to understand that public safety messages that come from authority figures don’t really work. We wanted this to be coming from peers. When it gets sent to you by a friend it’s a far more powerful message than if someone paid money to make you watch it.

That’s why the language of the campaign was important. We never tell you not to do it. We say it is exceptionally dumb. No teenager in the world will ever say to his or her friends, “Hey that doesn’t sound safe, you shouldn’t do that.” You can say to a friend, “You’re an idiot.” That’s okay.

We created a language that you can use to call out a friend for doing something dangerous without losing credibility with them.

Even if we had ten million dollars, paid media still wouldn’t have been the right way to go. Social was always going to bring more success than the traditional model. Though I think social is traditional now – we have to stop saying that.

How much did the fact that the ad was in service of a good cause contribute to its success? Would this sort of attention and praise be lavished on a for-profit message?

I think we’re one step ahead of the game when we’re genuinely trying to do good.

We live in an age where businesses and brands and private organizations are effectively more powerful than governments and government institutions. Governments are going bankrupt and brands have never been richer.

I think there is a level of responsibility now in the corporate world to be a force for good and the payoff for that is consumers with discretionary dollars will gravitate towards brands that actually try to do some good in the world.

How do you quantify the success of this ad? Is viral success or a truckload of Cannes Lions awards useful in getting people to be more careful around trains?

A print ad from the campaign.

A print ad from the campaign.

There are two main measurements. The first was awareness. It sounds odd to say it but there was zero awareness of the fact that trains are dangerous. Most of the accidents were coming from completely innocent behavior.

Measure number two was behavioural change – getting people to actually change their behaviour as a result of the awareness and reduce the numbers of accidental injuries and deaths.

Within four weeks of the campaign launching, the majority of Melbournians in the target audience had seen the campaign and nearly 40 percent of teenagers told us in post analysis they would be more aware around trains and reduce their risk-taking behavior.

In the three months immediately following the campaign, accidents and deaths on the system had dropped 21 percent compared with the same time last year, and tens of thousands of schools are using this song and this video as a teaching tool in classrooms.

People aren’t really hanging their hats on those numbers as proof that the job is done, but it’s a really encouraging early sign.

Do you think there is anything unique about the environment in Australia that enabled this ad to happen and to be such a success?

I think culturally Australians are very open and honest. We like to think we have a working model and agency model where someone relatively junior can call bullshit on someone senior and for that to be okay.

Whenever we go into another market I am often surprised at how careful people are in conversations with each other.

Australians lack tact and I think that is useful in advertising. I don’t think you want to tiptoe around things when you have a marketing problem in front of you. You need troublemakers and you need people who feel empowered to change things and be different.