IDEA: Safety PSAs are gloomy and tedious and largely ignored by young people hardwired to resist them—except when they're irresistibly fun and impossible not to share with friends. McCann Australia managed just such an evolution of the genre with "Dumb Ways to Die," its animated train-safety spot for the Melbourne Metro. The three-minute music video shows adorable blobs making the stupidest decisions ever—messing with animals, sticking forks in toasters, eating superglue, etc.—leading to all sorts of gruesome, fatal accidents. The dumbest way to die, the ad suggests at the end, is by being careless around trains. "The idea for a song started from a very simple premise: What if we disguised a worthy safety message inside something that didn't feel at all like a safety message?" said McCann executive creative director John Mescall. "So we thought about what the complete opposite of a serious safety message would be and came to the conclusion it was an insanely happy and cute song." With more than 30 million YouTube views, it seems happy, cute and grisly was the way to go.
COPYWRITING/SOUND: The song begins, "Set fire to your hair/Poke a stick at a grizzly bear/Eat medicine that's out of date/Use your private parts as piranha bait," before the chorus repeats the two lines, "Dumb ways to die/So many dumb ways to die." Mescall wrote most of the lyrics in one night at the agency. "It then took a few weeks of finessing," he said, "getting rid of a few lines that weren't funny enough and replacing them with new ones." The line "Sell both your kidneys on the Internet" was a late inclusion. "I'm glad it's there. It's my favorite," he said.
Australian musician Ollie McGill from the band The Cat Empire wrote the music. "We basically gave him the lyrics and told him to set it to the catchiest nonadvertising type music he could," said Mescall. McGill delivered something almost unbearably catchy. "The melody is easy to remember and sing along to, the lyrics are fun, bite-sized chunks of naughtiness, and the vocals have just the right amount of knowing innocence," Mescall said. "It's a song that you want to hate for living in your head, but you can't bring yourself to hate it because it's also so bloody likable." The singer is Emily Lubitz of another Australian band, Tinpan Orange. (The song is credited to Tangerine Kitty, which is a mashup of the two band names.) "Emily brought a great combination of innocence, playfulness and vocal integrity," Mescall said. "She brings a level of vocal quality you don't normally get on a video about cartoon death."
ART DIRECTION: Australian designer Julian Frost did the animation. "We gave him the most open brief we could: Just make it really funny and really awesome and do it to please yourself," said Mescall. The visual reference points ranged from Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies to Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (which showed men singing while being crucified) to "any number of hokey indie music-video flash mobs you see on YouTube," said Mescall.
"Julian was keen to contrast the extreme situations described in the lyrics with the simplest animation possible. Otherwise it would become just too much." After the spot blew up online, Frost wrote on his website: "Well, the Internet likes dead things waaay more than I expected. Hooray, my childish sense of humor pays off at last."
MEDIA: The spot lives online, in short bursts on music TV, and may reach cinemas. The campaign is also running in radio, print and outdoor. The song is on iTunes, where it reached the top 10. The agency is also producing a book as well as a smartphone game that should be ready by Christmas.
Client: Metro Trains Melbourne
General Manager, Corporate Relations: Leah Waymark
Marketing Manager: Chloe Alsop
Agency: McCann, Melbourne, Australia
Executive Creative Director: John Mescall
Creative Team: John Mescall, Pat Baron
Animation: Julian Frost
Digital Team: Huey Groves, Christian Stocker
Group Account Director: Adrian Mills
Account Director: Alec Hussain
Senior Account Manager: Tamara Broman
Senior Producer: Mark Bradley
Producer: Cinnamon Darvall
Composer and producer: Oliver McGill