“Dumb Ways to Die” – lessons intervention designers can learn from this smashingly successful campaign

Do you aim to deliver do-good messages in an entertaining medium (e.g. video games, Youtube videos)?   If so, I’m arguing that your campaign’s entertainment value is more important than your actual message.  Not equally important. More important. I feel it is surprisingly hard, expensive, and risky to engage an audience, and surprisingly easy, quick, and safe to deliver a simple message to an engaged audience. Does this sound imbalanced or wrong? See if this example convinces you.

Typical metro rail safety campaigns scold us (“STAY OFF THE TRACKS!!”) or aim to motivate us through fear of personal harm (“You’ll lose your legs if you play on tracks!”). However, one campaign has used a very different approach that achieved exceptional success: “Dumb Ways to Die” (dumbwaystodie.org). Before reading why the designers think this campaign is so successful (http://dumbwaystodie.org/why-dumb-ways-to-die-is-an-award-winning-campaign/), watch the “Dumb ways to die” video and form your own opinion.

What about that video, as an intervention, seemed most innovative to you?   I was first struck by the ironic, slightly mean-spirited concept. My guard was down, because I had never before seen such a snarky tone in any do-good campaign…until the last verse. Then, the catchy music slowed to a dramatic pause. My suspicion rose along with my attention…and yes, the message was finally delivered.  However, they kept it light, and gave me more entertaining elements, so I still liked it overall.  The video may not have been only delivering the stated message* but my point here is about the balance between entertainment and message-delivery: most of the video was purley entertaining. We are all experts at extracting a message embedded in an entertaining experience.  The designers recognize that.

The snarky tone is an example that suggests a broader point:

As intervention producers,  our do-good intention can limit and blind us to the best path to achieving our mission.

There are many barriers to such campaigns. One common barrier are the clients’ willingness to let the ends justify the means. Stakeholders in any important mission have emotional reasons for being involved, and these emotions can prevent a purely logical approach to campaign design.  Let’s say Sam the Metro Rails exec is our client. When a drunk teen is found, bloody and maimed on the rails, Sam may get that call.  To Sam, joking about rail death is tasteless at best. This is no laughing matter.

Stakeholders like Sam that hold the pursestrings want to make an effective campaign, but their design intuition may be exactly wrong.  It is intuitive for such stakeholders to try to scare the public into behavior change.Yet, as this campaign has shown, there are far more effective approaches waiting for us to discover.

For those of us who can overcome their instincts and be logical about their campaign design, I feel there are great gains in effacacy to be had.




Examining the Communication Effects of Health Campaigns A Case Study Using Find Thirty Every Day® in Western Australia. Justine E. Leavy, Adrian E. Bauman, Michael Rosenberg, Fiona C. Bull SAGE OpenMay 2014,4(2)DOI: 10.1177/2158244014533557.

* Secondly, the video does not beat a dead horse.  Everyone already knows playing on railroad tracks is dangerous.  Instead of aiming to remind us of something we know, this campaign adds a new reason not to play on the tracks: peer pressure.  The video makes risky rail behaviors (standing too near the edge of the train platform) as absurdly stupid-sounding as taking your helmet off in outer space.  By laughing at the squished cartoon guy on the tracks, we accept that being unsafe around trains would make people laugh at us for choosing such a dumb way to die. The fear of social scorn is a tremendously powerful deterrent, especially for teens (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08870449908410754).  When tempted to put a coin on the tracks, we choose not to, because we picture our friends thinking we’re a dummy, not losing fingers.