Dumb ways to… count marketing success

You’d have to be living in a deep, dark media-less cave not to have come across the wonderful Dumb Ways to Die song and video in the last week. It, and articles about it’s wild viral success, are everywhere. 17 million views on YouTube, countless downloads and a catchy tunes trapped in tens of millions of heads, it has been an astonishing success for a campaign aimed at encouraging safety on Victoria trains. Or has it?

You could not buy the level of publicity this tune has generated; and in that sense I’m guessing everyone involved is getting well-deserved kudos for creating something that has leveraged it’s budget enormously. But, and here’s my question: Is it likely to change the way people act?

As far as some quick research can dig up, if you exclude suicide, rail crossings are the big problem in terms of rail accidents. We get on average about 60 collisions between vehicles and trains a year in Australia leading to an average of about ten fatalities. It appears from the same sources that if you want to change this, the simple answer is to install boom gates at crossing rather than trying to change people’s behavior. So leave the crossings to one side and the other major causes are genuine accidents from people falling off platforms or running over the tracks. As far as I can see the number of those accidents is statistically tiny compared to the waves of people travelling every day.

That said, a small number is still a number of blighted lives and worth addressing. So the next question presumably needs to be whether the song will have an impact on that problem. Will it change the behaviour of the roughly 30 people per year who do dumb things?

Does the number of Youtube views, iTunes downloads and so on make any difference to people’s actions when they are doing the dumb things in question? Clearly no one is watching and listening for the message; but does the message squirrel its way into your brain along with the catchy tune? The message bit of the song is:

Stand on the edge of a train station platform
Drive around the boom gates at a level crossing
Run across the tracks between the platforms
They may not rhyme but they’re quite possibly
Dumbest ways to die-ie

So will this viral success of a song work its way into the heads of those who might do those things? It can’t hurt, but I’m struggling to see it making a big difference. These are accidents; the people involved are doing careless, dumb things – they are not considering the consequences of their actions and I don’t see the song changing that.

Does being mentioned on international TV, being discussed in newspapers around the country and the world make any difference? I’m going to guess not. Simply because the bulk of the coverage is about the fact the video is such a marketing success measured by… the amount of coverage it gets. That has to be an advertising madman’s dream, a completely closed circle where the ad gets coverage for being a successful ad – it’s like perpetual motion made real.

In terms of measuring success as a behaviour-changing project it’s clearly too early to tell. While I’m not convinced it will change behaviours the ad has already been labelled a runaway success. The question of beahviour-changing success, that metric if there is one, will be completely swamped in the background noise of a song gone viral. Who can argue with millions of downloads and international coverage? That’s success in the modern media world. And it’s a fundamentally terrible way to measure the success of something that’s intended to change behaviours in a small number of people. Sadly, we’re now living in a world where success is increasingly measured simply in terms of gross numbers and feeds off itself in a Kardashian circle of poor analysis.

Look, if this saves one life it will have been worth it, but I don’t believe it’s going to change the number of train accidents. I do believe it’s a lovely song though; and now if only I could stop myself humming it I might be able to hear that train coming…

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