Metro Trains: Dumb Ways to Die, one of the Best ads of the 21th Century.

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Metro Trains: Dumb Ways to Die, one of the Best ads of the 21th Century.

Metro Trains one of the Best ads of the 21th Century

Metro Trains one of the Best ads of the 21th Century

“Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its whole range of activities.”
–Marshall McLuhan

In 1999, as the 20th century came to a close, the Ad Age staff set out to examine all the ways in which advertising has entertained, moved and motivated us over the years. We decided to rank the 100 best campaigns of the century, in a special issue, to celebrate their creativity and impact.

Now, Advertising Age is updating this list with 15 of the best ad campaigns of the 21st Century. In the last 15 years, advertising and marketing, and the media it used to get out its messages, has experienced an incredible upheaval as digital media and interactivity changed the dynamics of how consumers see and pay attention brand messages.

Control shifted from marketers and traditional media timing their messages and forcing consumers to see ads as a trade-off for the content they wanted to see to the consumer wielding remote control and computer mouse. Traditional media found itself scrambling to stay relevant as digital media wreaked havoc with the guarantee that consumers were likely to see ad messages. Expensive journalism distributed free online amassed audience but not ad dollars and wiped out a whole generation of magazines and newspapers, while DVRs, podcasts, streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu challenged TV and radio models. Out of this massive shift, marketers and agencies got very innovative in turning these new tools to their advantage.

Several of these winning campaigns are on this list because they led the way in thinking about how to use these new tools effectively and entertainingly. Some of these ad campaigns are here because they changed the way consumers thought about the world around them and some are examples of great solid marketing built on spot-on insights and beautifully, perfectly executed.

Advertising Age tapped the expertise of leading creators and marketers to derive this list of 15. We asked our judges to consider three criteria, the same three questions that were used for the original Top 100 Ad Campaigns of the 20th Century:

  1. Was it a watershed ad or campaign, discernibly changing the culture of advertising or the popular culture as a whole?
  2. If it itself was credited with creating a category, or if by its efforts a brand became entrenched in its category as No. 1.
  3. Was it simply unforgettable?

We gave the judges a list of 50 nominees from which to vote on their top 15 and then rank them. These winning campaigns are those that got the most judges’ votes to be on the list, and ranked the highest. Ad Age Members were also asked to weigh in on their picks, and you can see the results of that poll here.

One of the judges, Greg Hahn, CCO, BBDO New York, noted of the finalists, “Looking at this list you can see what these executions have in common. They all have a strong voice, a POV, and a client that was willing to go outside of the tried and true. These all broke through because they broke out of the norm. They remain as standouts because they were inherently right for the brand. There are a million logical reasons why each of these shouldn’t have worked. Thank God the right people ignored all of them.”

Metro Trains: Dumb Ways to Die

How does a safety PSA for a local train company become the juggernaut of awards ceremonies, netting every creative prize going?

McCann Melbourne’s “Dumb Ways to Die” tapped into two elements that are loved almost universally: catchy music and cute cartoon characters. Add some really black humor into the mix and you get the beginnings of a cult classic.

The client, Melbourne’s Metro Trains, didn’t want a typical gloom-and-doom public service ad. McCann decided to go down the route of entertainment, writing some hilarious lyrics to a song about all the dumb ways to die—such as poking a grizzly bear, selling both your kidneys on the internet or using your privates as piranha bait—to underline the message that you need to be safe around trains because one of the dumbest ways to die is to get hit by one.

The resulting song, recorded by Tangerine Kitty, launched via iTunes, radio, YouTube and more. Within 24 hours of its launch in November 2012, the “Dumb Ways to Die” song reached the top 10 chart of iTunes. But it was the YouTube video that really sealed this campaign’s fate.

Deliberately created to promote viral sharability, it featured adorable animated characters graphically meeting their fate in various sick ways. Add to that the hook-y melody and you have what one of our judges, Naoko Ito of Party, calls: “The 21st century version of ‘We Are the World’” for the era of YouTube.”

Another judge, Cindy Chen, global head of innovation, gum category, at Mondelez International, points to its “serious message delivered in a cute and upbeat manner,” adding: “I caught myself singing the songs unconsciously–it almost never happens.”

The campaign also included posters and ambient displays that proved fodder for Instagram and social media. For example, passers-by could shoot themselves alongside the campaign’s characters and press a giant button to take the pledge to be safer around trains.

And to ensure longevity, McCann continued to take the campaign into new areas–cuddly toys based on the characters, a mobile app, even an educational book. The latest iteration is an extremely popular mobile game, which as an iPhone app hit No. 1 in 53 markets and became the top iPad app in 81 countries, according to data from App Annie. As Judge Jimmy Smith, chairman, CEO, CCO at Amusement Park Entertainment, points out: “The campaign is two years old and I’m still singing it. Pharrell can’t even do that!”

The campaign’s accolades included Best of Show at the One Show and Grand Trophy in the 2013 New York Festivals International Advertising Awards. And, famously, it became the most awarded campaign in the history of Cannes (with 28 Lions, including the five Grands Prix).

So, looking back a year later, was it deserved? Susan Gianinno, chairman, Publicis Worldwide, notes: “I actually think the awards circuit got carried away with this one. But, this is another example of a truly tough brief. How on earth do you get young people to even think about the perils of train platforms? You have to charm them into paying attention. This work works ‘like a charm.’ It is utterly contagious.”

It was also effective: Metro Trains noticed a 21% reduction in accidents and deaths on its network as a result of the campaign.