What CEOs Can Learn From “Dumb Ways to Die”

From executing strategic vision to communicating high performance standards to being ultimately responsible for all day-to-day management decisions and for implementing the company’s long and short term plans, a CEO has his work cut out for him. With great power comes great responsibility, so when the company is in the red and heads have to roll, the members of the board almost always look at the CEO first.

“Dumb Ways to Die” was a model of success on so many levels that it should be in advertising textbooks already. The fact that it’s not for profit – it’s simply a public service announcement campaign by Metro Trains to promote rail safety – just makes it all the more remarkable. The result left the client awestruck as much as it did the ad agency.

What did they do right?

If you ask McCann Melbourne, they didn’t really adopt an advertising model. Instead, they focused on content. Still, I have reason to believe the ad had the workings of a conventional advertising model that just happened to have superior content across the board. And don’t forget an engaged audience. Here’s how a traditional ad works:

  • Attention. The ad must be compelling enough to grab the target market’s attention.

The first step for McCann Melbourne and Metro Trains was to produce and record a music video called “Dumb Ways to Die, which was the main shareable piece of content. It featured a cute song (easy to sing along with, nice rhyme and meter, simple rhythm) with funny cartoon characters dying in ridiculous ways. It ended with a reference to the main point: railway safety. “Dumb Ways to Die” really started from a truly engaging and a well thought-through piece of content.

  • Interest. Of course, it must be interesting.

The way McCann framed the content made the audience want to keep singing and finding out other ridiculous ways to die – not that they’re looking for ideas but because you didn’t want the song and the animation to end.

  • Desire. The product must be beneficial enough to the target market that they would actually buy it.

In this case, Metro Trains wasn’t selling anything. Still, they didn’t scrimp on the benefits of the message. They made sure the message was: if you listen to this ad, you will live. McCann Melbourne’s goal was to create a content good enough that people would actually part with their money to have it.

  • Action. There has to be a clear and convincing call to action.

The main message was, “Do not do dumb things around trains”. Do not get killed by a train. Do not stand on the edge of a train platform. Do not run across the rails/tracks. There are so many dumb ways to die, but the dumbest of them all is if you are killed by a train. Why? Trains travel in a (mostly) straight line and you know when it’s coming and if you still get killed by a train, you are really dumb.

  • Make people “own” the material

McCann did this by just letting the content out, and when it had a huge following, they just allowed the public people to make their own versions and spoofs of the original material. While the music video was already viral, the effect of the public “owning” it was exponential. Soon, they had to release a smartphone game, a children’s book, and launch a dedicated website.


  • Think “Glocal”

They thought if the ad was to be successful in locally, it had to be popular in other English-speaking markets first. Even the tone of the voice of the local singer was carefully chosen to have the right vibe.In the end, the campaign was a success because it had the right mix of great content, an engaged audience, and a sprinkling of good timing. And of course, nobody really wanted to die in the dumbest way possible.

This post originally appeared at Callbox Blog.