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June 26, 2013

Is “Dumb Ways to Die” A Smart PR Campaign?

“Dumb Ways to Die” delighted PR-watchers when it recently swept the Cannes Lions, the Oscars of the creative industry, and a very prestigious award for a public relations program. The Cannes Festival, in fact, has had cachet since Don Draper’s day, but it was virtually closed to the public relations biz. Like a poor relation, PR has been trying to crash the Cannes country club, with little success.

But after “Dumb Ways to Die,” a public safety program created by Metro Trains of Melbourne, Australia, it seemed those elegant French doors had opened. We’ve arrived! And all on the momentum of an insidiously catchy music video about being smart and safe.

Or have we? If “Dumb Ways to Die” represents a milestone for PR, I’d say we still have a ways to go.

Make no mistake, the campaign is irresistible. (See Barbara Lippert’s review here.) My 9-year-old turned me on to it last year. She’d heard about it from a friend, naturally. And though she fell in love with the sweetly adorable characters dying cartoonishly gruesome deaths (over and over again), the safety message wasn’t lost. That’s precisely why “Dumb Ways” is such a little viral juggernaut. That and the song, which refuses to die once you hear it.

“Dumb Ways” has racked up over 50 million YouTube views, and it’s now an app and a videogame. It’s also the basis for a safety pledge inviting Melbourne residents to be mindful of commonsense rules when taking public transit. The pledge, presumably, is the heart of the PR component.

At Cannes, the campaign won Grand Prix awards for film, integrated marketing, direct marketing, radio, and PR categories, as well as 18 Gold Lions, three silvers, and one bronze. That’s a lot of ways to win.

But “Dumb Ways” wasn’t created by a PR agency. It’s McCann’s campaign, and PR is, well, along for the ride.

In an interview, McCann Melbourne Executive Creative Director John Mescall says he doesn’t think any Melbourne PR agency could have birthed the idea, in part because PR teams are called upon later, to execute brand activations or tell the campaign’s success story. Further, he doesn’t think PR pros are trained to think in terms of simple, big ideas that rely on a shared content model.

This is discouraging because there’s some truth to it. Packaging the message takes talent and skill. But when you can create the message in a totally original way, that’s when you break new ground. And the fact is, for all the expertise we have in content development, the typical PR content approach is a journalistic one, not a creative or entertainment model.

“Dumb Ways to Die” is a triumph, but PR can’t claim it. It’s a step in the right direction. One day, I hope to see more programs like it, campaigns that show heroic work for underbudgeted clients or generate stunning levels of shared and earned media for companies we’ve never heard of. The best way to do that is the old marketing formula: simple ideas, well packaged, but with a different content mindset. Now, that would be smart.

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