There’s no denying that Dumb Ways To Die is a brilliant video campaign, a high-flyer that deserves awards and will rightly become known as one of the best ads ever created.


But I thought why not try and come up with some ways it could have been even better – a dubious challenge I know, but as it turns out the campaign could be considered a little bit strategically ‘numb’ in some areas.

At least that’s how it is at the present moment in June 2013, perhaps some extensions and tweaks might ensue.

Well, better explain myself, here are some of the suggestions from my desk…

#1 Capitalise on mortality salience
A subtle yet highly effective enhancement could greatly increase behaviour change if Terror Management Theory is applied.

Academics like Anson, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Rosenblatt and Solomon have published numerous studies revealing insights connected to the way in which we manage the terror of our mortality and impending death.

Terror Management Theory has proven that when mortality salience is primed, people become much more attached to their cultural world view and that behaviour change is most likely to be committed to in the time shortly following such priming.

DWTD floods the viewer with mortality salience, a good three minutes of focused death-related thoughts. The pulsatory nature of attention is nullified as the engaging tune monopolises viewer focus, and a (massive) kind of ‘gate’ of mortality salience opens in the subconscious of all individuals watching the video.

Symbolic Immortality

To greatly amplify the campaign’s effectiveness, some elements highlighting and engaging shared cultural connections between young people and between them and wider society could have been added.

For example, the final statement could be something like, “Join Victorians in being safe around trains” or simply and more globally “Join together in being safe around trains”. A small embellishment, but a potent one.

Equally subtle but powerful would be the addition of a small Australian flag somewhere on the train platform, perhaps held by one of the characters.

A facebook image of one of the DWTD character (fully intact and alive) wearing an AFL jersey for example, and instructing a safe way to behave around trains would be an effective behaviour change agent in and of itself.

It certainly appears that none of Melbourne’s cultural vessels have been utilised.

I won’t go on to waffle about this, but let me say that the effects of these small additions related to terror management and symbolic immortality would significantly enhance the long-term retention/recall as well as effective assimilation into everyday behaviour, not to mention long-lasting attitude change towards high-risk skirmishes in public.

#2 Use YouTube direct response
When I watch the DWTD video on YouTube all I can think about is how I’ve just witnessed 50 million lost opportunities for direct response.

While it is true that YouTube screen links do not yet come through on mobiles, I would guestimate that at least a third of the views would have occurred on PC or other click-enabled viewing device.

Such a link could lead to the most important platform and ally – a facebook Page – which leads in to the next suggestion …

#3 Add facebook content
Granted that it was obviously not the goal to engage on facebook, but I can’t understand why not.

Let’s say a link at the end of the video saying “Meet the characters” takes viewers to a gated facebook Page that requires you to ‘Like’ it in order to continue, and you are taken to a facebook smorgasboard of “Dumb Ways To Die-ness”, with shareable character profile images and opportunities for discussion via image Comments, and for people to add their own images etc.


Could it have been the facebook Page of 2013? It’s highly likely.

Most importantly, a presence on facebook would put the public in charge of creative development to some extent, which would produce interesting and relevant creative extensions which could be quickly seized upon.

No doubt the DWTD creators have had other things on their minds and plates, least of all facebook engagement, but very little time and effort could have seen facebook take engagement to levels not imagined. It is no exaggeration to suppose it could have been the most Liked Page in facebook history.

DWTD is itself now a cultural phenomenon that’s not going away any time soon, so while a great opportunity has been missed, great gains can still be made with a super fb Page.

#4 Help prevent suicides through community galvanisation
I’m only going on my general memory here, but I recall when glancing at the stats that the main behavioural concern numerically is the number of train suicides.

DWTD will no doubt reduce train-related suicides (I won’t waffle on as to why) however there could be an increase in some of the other methods of committing suicide as some people select away from the train death option, but commit to ending their own life, albeit in a smarter less graphic manner.

Melbourne data should definitely be monitored for any small spikes in areas of non-train suicides.

DWTD is such an influential cultural sub-current that it may effectively ‘herd’ people towards more gradual or detectable, and thus preventable, self-harm endeavours. Which is another positive result, whether intended or not.

In any case, on the DWTD website it would have been great to see some links in the site’s footer to some community outreach groups or sources of engagement, perhaps a subtle four or five ‘associated links’ or ‘community safety partners’.

Nothing directly suicide related, but certainly something taking advantage of the increased subconscious drive towards cultural world view attachment and consolidation (and thus community galvanisation) as mentioned in #1 above.

#5 Include a judgement reality-check in the gaming
I love the DWTD games on my phone, brilliant design and execution for sure. However there was a big chance to educate people on the faults of their sense instruments.

Some interesting train-related behavioural studies in countries like England and India have shown how people simply overestimate the amount of time it takes a speeding train to arrive.

One of the games could have players try and guess exactly when the train will pass their exact location, and make them lucidly aware of a hard-wired human perceptual fault in timing judgement that cannot be avoided.

No one is entirely certain why we humans make this fatal error so often, but my guess is related to cognitive processing. One of the associated labels, as known to cognitive neuroscientists, is the Free Choice Calculation Error.

It has been proven that when humans are calculating on-the-spot, the production of the answer is delayed by up to 4 seconds. Even though the answer is there as shown by measured neural activity in the medial pre-frontal and parietal cortex areas of our brain, for some reason we delay giving the answer to our conscious faculties.

And we do not realise we are committing this error of delay. We think we can time things right, but in fact we can’t.

Essentially, in everything we do, we think we have commenced moving/acting/deciding quite a while before we actually have – rather undesirable in frantic situations we put or find ourselves in.

Further, considering developmental psychology, when it comes to rare, dangerous calculations like judging a speeding train I would suggest that people under the age of 25 and over the age of 36 could be even worse than 4 seconds out in their judgement of when Thomas the Tank Engine actually passes Knapford Station, given the underdeveloped brains of young people, and the slowing reflexes and processing speed of the middle-aged.

One of the DWTD games does involve stepping back from the platform in time, but it’s much too easy to succeed at, so it only worsens our bias in timing judgement. In my view a train avoidance task should be sped up significantly to increase the failure rate of game players in line with real life.

Gamers could be provided with an explanation about the fault timing instrument inside all of us that’s 4+ seconds behind the outside world. Because when it comes to speeding objects, being ‘double safe’ works out to be, in reality, only just scraping it in as ‘safe’.

#6 Improve railway signage / indicators
A great behavioural solution in India, involved painting intermittent wooden sleepers on the train tracks bright yellow, which was shown to help people’s judgement of train approach speed and better avoid train collisions.

This principle / technique could be used near railway crossings and near platforms, because one thing will never change; our brains only get dumber the closer an approaching train gets.

Thus far I don’t know of any on-track or on-platform behavioural measures put in place to back up the DWTD campaign, so yet again, while I’m incredibly impressed I think that believe it or not, there is still even more great work possible.

#7 Activate adolescent agents
Adolescents can be powerful behaviour-change agents if they are engaged and given optional responsibilities. There’s none of this coming out of the campaign in this regard which is a waste I believe.

Young people could, and still can, be easily recruited as passive safety officers around trains and platforms. One example I can think of is baby car positioning on platforms.

There have been multiple incidences, including in Australia, where a parent places/leaves a pram perpendicular to train tracks, and the pram has rolled onto the tracks, such as the one shown here at Fairfield Station in Melbourne…

I’d never suggest the inclusion of a pram accident in a humorous video, but certainly this danger along with many others could be addressed on the website or through facebook.

The point is that there has been little in the way of safety awareness and real and actual reinforcement put in place around the campaign, its website, and follow-up efforts around Melbourne.

The behaviour of perpendicular pram positioning for example, could have been all but eliminated from Victoria by now I believe, assuming the social media engagement platform included facebook in order to get enough kids and parents engaged.

In this case it could be “Keep your pram parallel to the curb” as a way to be safe, and a related instructional slogan for kids like “keep parents parallel” so that kids monitor prams and warn parents/friends of potential risks.

Perhaps in the form of a set of viral facebook images with educational copy on the image that suggests the sharing of the image to “keep people safe”.

#8 Entice Disfluency
This is one of the many interesting areas that we in the behavioural sciences ballpark are building on at the moment, as seen here …

In attempting to compel people to think more seriously about certain behaviours, disfluency when used correctly can be one of the stongest creative assets for a campaign like DWTD.

The text on the website should without question be in a font that is more challenging to read – a font like Monotype Corsiva for example.

In fact, I would bet my bottom dollar that if the Pledge on the website is changed to a font that’s more difficult to read, the pledge click-through rate would sky rocket. This is discussed in the above video at the very beginning and at the very end.

Not only for the website text, but in viral facebook images, disfluent text would be a highly effective tool at forming and/or galvanising any number of different behaviour changes or attitude adjustments around the issues connected to transport safety.

#9-20+ … many more…
This is a blog post so I won’t keep going, but there are at least fifteen in total that absolutely warrant consideration and could have made the best campaign of 2012/13 into possibly the best campaign of all time.

One involves empathy vs perspective-taking, another on independent vs dependant construals, near-death experiences and flash-bulb memories, then there’s signage perception, merchandising, twitter presence, etc, I won’t harp on.

But please don’t mind if I might indulge in a shameless self-plug on behalf of the behavioural sciences and the usefulness of its application towards creative effectiveness and campaign development.

DWTD is nothing short of creative genius. By the time the campaign is finished winning awards, John the creator will be able to change his surname to Mescannes. For a decade or so at least!

As the below image found on the internet clearly shows, DWTD has infiltrated the memesphere, an indication that it could have an effect on the consciousness of an entire generation of young people – no doubt it has already begun to infiltrate the schooling system via children to teachers to parents.

DWTD, go you good thing, I’m a big fan. And go Melbourne and go Australia!

See! We we don’t just make effective jingles and date-stamped pillows in Australia, we can also kick the world’s tuchas in social media!




{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }


interesting psychological insights here,,, we are always having issues in INdia with trains and people dying so hope this kind of work continues!


Helen Dalziel

I luv the video and think it’s a great example of where marketing’s going now and what needs to done to engage masses of people, congrats to the makers for cleaning up at Cannes too!



Wow the facebook page is really bad.


Peter Bray

Great post. My one flag is that I didn’t think the campaign was targeted at reducing suicides, but rather unintentional behavior that results in injury and death around trains. Indeed the metrics cited by the client don’t mention suicides. So #4 may not be relevant. My view is that it is a tremendously engaging piece of content, and I am looking forward to the data regarding effectiveness.


Peter thanks for your comment, absolutely the data coming from the campaign will be intriguing.

Re #4: I’m assuming that they are implicitly/inadvertently trying to address (or discourage) suicides around trains even though the campaign doesn’t outwardly appear to take that angle (better than being open/blunt), thus I’m extrapolating how they could better do that. As you point out though, they may not have had any suicide prevention goals in mind.


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