Dumb Ways to Measure Effectiveness

by Dr Rob Long on September 19, 2013

in Robert Long

Dumb Ways to Measure Effectiveness

dumb ways to dieGuest article by Dr Rob Long from www.humandymensions.com – it wasn’t hard, when it was first released, to see through the cuteness and catchy tune and predict how ineffective this campaign would prove long term! As George used to say, all you have to do is take something away and if nothing happens then it was just a displacement activity to avoid working on the real problem.

See the video here

Don’t miss Rob’s 10 Effective Safety Communications tips at the end of the article.

Finally it seems that some sense is entering the debate about the Dumb Ways to Die (DWTD) Youtube phenomenon (http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/safety-message-may-be-falling-off-20130914-2trrr.html). The naivety that has been circulated as sense about the effectiveness of this campaign has been nothing short of mind-boggling. And I notice that this campaign even makes the program of the next SIA Visions conference in Cairns as a benchmark for safety communication ‘cleverness’ (http://www.visions.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Visions-Program-Updated-10-Sept-2013-2.pdf). I am looking forward to sitting in on that presentation.

The idea that something is ‘effective’ judged by the number of hits on Youtube is simply dumb. On this criteria one can determine that PSY, Justin Beber, Jennifer Lopez and Eminem are ‘brilliant’. Number 6 on the Youtube charts at 554 million hits is ‘Charlie bit my Finger’ (http://www.youtube.com/charts/videos_views?t=a&gl=US) (DWTD sits at 58 mill). Now there’s an effective safety message! Just this week Miley Cyrus launched her semi-pornographic clip Wrecking Ball and it has doubled the hits of Dumb Ways to Die (100 million). So if effectiveness is judged by Youtube hits then having a fully nude 21 year old female swinging on a wrecking ball must be the ultimate in ‘clever’ communication. What nonsense, when will the safety community get some critical thought in order and include a component of ethics in their thinking. The Bloody Idiot campaign of TAC Victoria is in the same mindless unethical camp, since when did an unethical process justify a safety goal? (https://safetyrisk.net/whose-the-bloody-idiot/)

Well, at last the Age blows apart the dumb down thinking attributed to this campaign. You can read a previous post on this blog about this campaign (https://safetyrisk.net/dumb-ways-to-die-and-a-strange-sense-of-success/). When will the safety community include the psychology of goals in some of its thinking? No goal stands alone, there are always by-products and trade-offs in goals setting. Before we embark on praising some popular campaign, it might help to fist consider its ethical trajectory.

Let’s get a few things straight, the Dumb Ways to Die campaign was motivated by an increase in suicides on Vic rail, partially triggered by the pedestrian enclosure of the Westgate Bridge. The campaign, parodies and game that were generated by this catchy tune and animation actually promote (counter-intuitively) suicide. Ten months later, as published in The Age, we discover that near misses at Vic rail crossing have not only increased but statistics are now significantly (14%) higher than they were 5 years ago. Of course, due to ‘sunk cost effect’ the creators of the animation continue to defend the clip and claim interest is dropping off as it does in all campaigns. How convenient, it was never an ethical campaign and was never ‘clever communication’.

What makes for effective communication in safety? Here are a few tips:

1. Messages in safety must be consistent and ethical, there is no value in seeking to promote a safety message that contradicts itself. The end never justifies the means.

2. Designers of safety communications should be aware of the psychology of goals and the trajectory of messages. Judging effectiveness by populism ‘in the moment’ is blind and simplistic.

3. People who want to promote safety messages need to be aware of the ‘pitching’, ‘framing’ and ‘priming’ of language. The idea that words don’t matter contradicts the evidence, just ask anyone in advertising and marketing.

4. Safety people need to be longsighted when it comes to messages in safety and not grab the first bit of ‘noise’ that comes along.

5. Insulting and negative messages are ‘loss framed’ and are neither attractive nor motivational. Safety messages need to be ‘gain framed’.

6. Safety people need to study the nature of motivation and include such knowledge in the way they engage others.

7. George Robotham’s favourite saying was ‘When initiating change, Remember, People support what they create’. Safety people should consult and pilot messages and see if they work longitudinally before they start experimenting with yo-yos and fads.

8. A study of the psychology of goals would be useful for all safety people. The idea that goals are singular and simple drives naïve goals setting such as zero harm.

9. Risk and safety must above all make sense of risk. Projecting perfectionist messages on fallible people and organisations simply doesn’t make logical sense.

10. Consult and read Standards Australia’s brief publication HB 327:2010 Communicating and Consulting About Risk. A great place to start for any safety person.

  • SueC

    Note the agency have updated the page since I linked it, as they are now in the app game phase of the campaign (heaven help us..).. and therefore bragging those hits. Someone who is willing to access it might like to comment on how the app game contributes to safety education, or if it lets you save characters or in someway encourages you to kill them. The relationship of this campaign to video games just took on another meaning (re the analysis on the other current blog on this topic)

    Yes I have read the article and I agree with it. Lots of hits do not equal effective. It is poor communication. And a 5 year stats indicating incidents actually increased also argued aginst its effectivenss

    However, when I questioned who had made the ad and why, and followed the peer links to the ad agencies web site, I found:

    1. the premise of the ad was based on the linear nature of train paths and their assumption was decisions we make to get in the way of trains were therefore dumb. Logical but not well thought out. This is the bit we are (in my opinion, rightfully..) challenging as offensive & unethical. At least we now know their thought process..

    2. an uncited stat from the Metro is there had been a 21% reduction in accidents and death on the rail network, attributed to this campaign.
    The Australian reported in June that this was part of the information given to the judging panel at Cannes this year and apparently impressed them.
    This is at odds with the 14% increase you cited from the Age. What I would now like to see is the source of the ad agencies’ Metro Trains stat, and understand if it has a real relationship to the campaign or not .

    If there has, in fact been a 21 % reduction in incidents and deaths on the rail network, we can still hold that the ad is unethical and offensive, but we need to re-examine the claims of it being ineffective against the objective of reducing rail incidents.
    Hence the effectivemenss question.

    It may be that being interstate I’m being slow on this and playing catchup. If that is the case, I’m sorry for the waste of bandwidth 🙂

  • Do we judge effectiveness by the amount of noise created? by hits on the internet? or by the fundamental unethical process by which the campaign seeks to achieve its end? The idea that people are dumb for suicide is simply offensive and unethical, and the DWTD program hasn’t reduced anything anyway (read the article).

  • sueC

    Thanks, Marie Claire.

    Their page for the ad is here: http://www.mccann.com.au/project/dumb-ways-to-die/
    The premise (‘Truth’) is
    ‘Trains travel in a straight line. If you get hit by a train, you’ve probably done something wrong which makes getting hit by a train one of the dumbest ways to die. ‘

    It has a game app, Kate Moss loves it, and :
    ‘More importantly, 14 million people have stated that they would be safer around trains because of the campaign, and Metro Trains noticed a 21% reduction in accidents and deaths on its network.’ (uncited stats)

    Their news section said it was Aust made (so why the rattlesnake and moose?), and that the Cannes Festival judges were impressed by the incident reduction of 21%

    So did the ad work or not?

  • Hi Sue,

    It was made by McCann Erikson. A very good ad agency. I used to work with them years ago and they were one of the nicer ones to work with.

  • sueC

    And why if this is an Aussie safety campaign does it refer to rattlesnakes and moose?

    Anyone know the pedigree of the creative effort?

  • I’ve never liked the DWTD ad because it spends so little time on what you actually want people to do. It’s pretty stupid to me showing what you don’t want people to do and make a joke out of it.

    Weirdly, I was walking past some 10 year old school kids one of whom was singing the song. She left the footpath and went onto the road on her bike without looking for cars while singing that song. So it certainly doesn’t make children think of safety while they’re singing!

    But I digress. One really, really important part of any safety communication is action. There always has to be a clear action that you want people to take. WorkSafe Vic does this really well and always ends with what they want people to do. In fact, they even measure the effectiveness on the ad by asking people whether they changed their behaviour (or even thoughts) because of the ad. They aim for about 40-50% in action.

  • JLE


    3 Dec 2012 … we were saying it wouldn’t be much good at improving safety

  • Thanks Sue, yes I saw it and it demonstrates several things.

    1. People in marketing have no idea about ethics and very little about the social psychology of risk.
    2. Neither Todd nor Russell really did their homework, no-one has on this campaign except a very few. This is a campaign in response to the rise of suicides following the enclosure of the West Gate Bridge.
    3. Effectiveness in marketing is not the same as effectiveness in risk and safety.
    4. Regardless of whether the statistics are high or low, the fundamental drive of the campaign counterintuitively associates suicide with stupidity.
    5. Those who laud praise on this disgraceful campaign know very little about what is really being suggested by the preoccupation and projection of stupidity with risk, risk makes sense.
    6. Now we have a generation of teenagers who through auto suggestion now associate suicide with being dumb, so next time someone suicides, regardless of the methodology, they will be deemed ‘dumb’.
    7. This campaign creates the illusion of that incidents don’t happen to people because of intelligence, therefore creating a huge gap between reality and mythology (superiority).
    8. Every person who has suicided using rail is not only ‘dumb’ but they must now be marginalised by a generation desensitised to real issues.
    9. Coupled with the stupid idiot campaign for roads in Victoria, we now now that their parents are also bloody idiots for raising children who are risky.
    10. Populism helps dumb down people so that they don’t think, neither think that ethics is relevant to practice or messages given.

  • sueC

    Watch it on ABC TV iView here
    DWTD bit was towards end of ep

    ABC2 repeats the ABC1 shows, so it also might be on there, too


  • sueC

    The DWTD campaign got a big outing on Gruen Planet on the ABC last night (18/9/13) It was aluded as the most awarded advert ever and to them officially the best ever.

    When it was pointed out that the purpose was to reduce train safety incidents, and in fact the stats had gone the wrong way since release, a very good and robust discussion happened around ‘never mind the creative magnificence, isn’t it just a waste of money of it doesn’t fill the brief ?’ . I don’t often agrree with Tod Samson (sp?) but it was a the point I was itching fro someone to make
    The incredible reply was’ the stats ididn’t matter’ (altho hits obviously do..) and Todd was spot on to call his opposite number on the gushing adoration for something that doesn’t work!

    • I missed that, would have been great to see them squirm, will see if I can get a copy of the video from somewhere. I admit to really enjoying it initially, til I gave it some serious thought………


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