John Mescall, ECD, McCann Melbourne and Ollie McGill discuss the rail safety song that has stormed the viral chart
Last week McCann Melbourne unleashed a cute cartoon of improbably gruesome deaths into the world – and the world, it seems, just can’t get enough of it. The combination of impossibly endearing character design and an irresistibly catchy song has rendered Dumb Ways to Die a runaway success, notching up over 8.5 million views (and counting) in a few days. At the risk of sounding terribly retro and Web 2.0, it’s a bona fide viral sensation. We caught up with writer and ECD John Mescall and musical maestro Ollie McGill to let us know just how they did it.
LBB> What was the brief like that Metro Trains first approached you with? What were your initial thoughts when you first saw it?
JM> The brief was to create something that would get the idea through to young people that dangerous behaviour around trains was a very bad idea. Our immediate response was ‘this isn’t going to be easy’ because not only do young people not want to hear that message, but if you get it wrong it could backfire. Let’s face it; the best way to get a teenager to do something is usually to tell them not to do it. Lucky for us, our client agreed.
LBB> The spot takes a ‘cutesy’ yet quite brutal approach to a very serious issue – why was that sense of humour important?
JM> We decided early on to take an extremist approach: extremely morbid meets extremely cute. We thought that if we smashed them together we’d end up with something that was not only funny, but also reasonably unique. It’s difficult to get people to share commercial content if it doesn’t have humour and novelty value. If you can make the 'WTF' quotient high, that helps too.
LBB> What was the target audience for the film?
JM> The bullseye for the target audience was teenagers and young adults, but we also wanted to make something with universal appeal.
LBB> Why was composer and musician Oliver McGill the right man for this project and what did he bring? How did you convince him to get involved?
JM> Ollie was perfect for this job because he’s a great young musician who infuses his music with a sense. And he doesn’t really do ads, which was important because the last thing we wanted was something that smelt, tasted or sounded like advertising.
To be honest, it didn’t take a lot of convincing to get him involved. We told him ‘this is about death, but funny’, sent him the lyrics and he loved it. Who wouldn’t want to compose music around a set of lyrics that open with ‘set fire to your hair’?
LBB> In terms of the lyrics, how did you go about generating the various grizzly deaths? Was it a case of bouncing ideas around or researching the Darwin Awards? What was the writing process like?
JM> I wrote it in one evening, and I’m a touch concerned that I didn’t need any external stimulus or reference at all. Over the course of the following few weeks we tweaked it some, added an extra chorus and euthanised a few lines that weren’t working as well as they could. Probably the most difficult part was getting death scenarios that rhymed.
For instance, I really liked the ‘sell both your kidneys’ line, but couldn’t get kidneys to rhyme with anything. After a while, I changed it to ‘sell both your kidneys on the internet’ and that was much easier to work with.
LBB> What were the biggest challenges that you had to overcome when creating the film?
JM> The biggest challenge was finding the right illustrator/animator. This kind of thing lives or dies on a hundred little subtleties, and we knew we needed to use someone who understood the humour and was really into the whole idea of it. We found that guy in the amazingly talented Julian Frost. Every single day for a month, he kept coming up with animations that made us laugh.
LBB> The film has received over 7million [almost 8.5 Million – Tues, 20th] views on YouTube in less than a week. Can we look forward to seeing more from our self-destructive friends in the future?
JM> I really hope so. Rail safety will always be an ongoing concern, so I’d imagine this campaign will be around for a while yet. I know people all over the place are demanding t-shirts, plush toys and whatnot… so we’ll see.
LBB> Why do you think the song has been picked up so fast and by so many people?
JM> It’s extremely likeable. It’s a bit wrong, but it has such an unrelenting charm that it just gets away with it. I think people like the fact that we’re giving them permission to enjoy something horrible. We also made it extremely easy to share via mobile devices, Tumblr and the like.
LBB> And Ollie, how did you begin creating such an infectious song to accompany John’s gruesome lyrics?
OM> I was approached by McCann with a brief to write a song - not an ad jingle - that could simply be enjoyed by all with no hard sale. I was also given a sheet of paper with some lyrics, written by the creative director, John Mescall. At the time, I thought that the lyrics were ridiculous (no offense John) and considered that the whole idea might not work. However I eagerly accepted the challenge and when I started working on the music, the melodies started flowing out and a great song was formed.
I was driving back from a camping trip late one night when I started to think of some ideas. I kept singing ‘dumb ways to dieeee’ in my head, and when I got home, I picked up my guitar. The chorus, as we know it, was the first thing I played. The rest unfolded from that after a few meetings with the agency. One night, in search for some inspiration, I wandered down to my second living room, Barney Allen's, to grab a beer. Low and behold, I saw the entire creative team at the other side of the bar. That ended up being a fairly big night and the main feel for the song was born as a result of it.