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Is 'Dumb Ways to Die' the exception that proves the rule?

by Nigel Hollis | January 07, 2013

Thanks to my colleagues, Jarrod Payne and Daren Poole, for drawing my attention to the latest viral hit, ‘Dumb Ways to Die.’ It is a picture and pitch perfect example of a viral video, and has already garnered over 36 million views on YouTube since it was uploaded in November 2012. But this success is probably one in a million. There are not many videos that get more than a few thousand views in their lifetime.

‘Dumb Ways to Die’ was created in order to reduce the really silly behaviors observed every day by Melbourne Metro train staff in Australia. The company approached McCann Worldgroup Australia to produce an awareness campaign encouraging passengers to act more safely. 

John Mescall is the executive creative director for the ad, and recalls that the idea for the video lay in an absolute truth. Interviewed on Mumbrella, he says:

Trains are the most predictable things on earth, and to be brutally honest, if you decide to walk across train tracks between the platforms and don’t see a train coming and get hit by it… well, it’s your own dumb fault.

Listing out the factors behind the video's success, Mescall notes the title itself, asking:

Who wouldn’t click on ‘Dumb Ways to Die’?

He also lists the music and decision to mix morbid subject matter with saccharine levels of cute to make the video as funny and shareable as possible. 

It’s happy and silly and joyful and clever and more than a little odd; the intangible things that are so hard to rationalize, but so very important.

Interviewed by ABC News, Mescall suggests that it is the sort of message that needs to be pitched right to prevent people tuning out. He also comments that “simplicity is hard.” And that is a critical point. In spite of the many factors that needed to come together to be successful, the end result is simple and enjoyable, and the hard work paid off in terms of shareability. 

But unfortunately, some analysis of the 2012 YouTube Ads Leaderboard suggests that very few brand videos can hope for the same degree of success. Although YouTube states:

The 2012 YouTube Ads Leaderboard celebrates the U.S. ads that most moved audiences through a winning combination of promotion (paid ads) and popularity (organic views). And with over 200 million combined views, it's proof that if you make it great, they will come.

A simple analysis suggests that you better sweat the details as McCann Worldgroup Australia did, and make your video really great if you want people to come. Based on the 20 ads on YouTube's Ads Leaderboard, the number of views an ad receives on a daily basis decays exponentially with its rank. Like so many things on the Internet, it seems the long tail gets thin very quickly when it comes to viral video.

Please share your thoughts. 

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