How to Save Lives with Advertising

How to Save Lives with Advertising

Last year, we all fell in love with a cheeky public service campaign called Dumb Ways to Die. Intended to promote greater pedestrian safety on the Melbourne Metro, it featured a music video that listed stupid ways you could die. They included eating superglue, inviting a serial killer into your home, and selling both your kidneys. At the end, the video said that perhaps the dumbest way to die of all is to get hit by a train.

The video went as viral as the flu. Viewed more than 70 million times, it was declared by many the most successful public service campaign in advertising history. Dumb Ways to Die eventually won two Webbys and the Grand Prix at Cannes, among countless lesser awards.

But did it work? The simple answer is “of course.” As its agency pointed out, it not only won awards, it also generated $50 million in global advertising value. Ok, but did it work?

Let’s think about that for a moment. What was the Metro trying to achieve? It wanted to save lives, and we can track that. The Metro measures safety by something called “near misses at level crossings.” Two and a half months after the campaign’s launch, it reported that such incidents had dropped 30%. That sounds great. Unfortunately, it’s also meaningless. The Metro only reports 13 or 14 or so near misses every month on average. That means some months you get 10, others 17. If you simply look at two months’ time, a 30% reduction is not out of the ordinary.

Instead, you have to see how the campaign worked long term. Here things don’t look so rosy. Over the first six months of 2013, the positive trend reversed. Near misses during that time actually increased 14% over the previous year. Given that PSAs tend to sunset after six months or so, the campaign probably didn’t work for the Metro at all.

Let’s not rush to blame anyone. PSAs can save lives in the right context. In 2011, for example, Britons saw a hilarious PSA starring movie tough guy Vinnie Jones. It taught people that they could save the life of cardiac arrest victims simply by pushing hard and fast on their chests to the beat of the Bee Gees' “Staying Alive.” That simple, easy-to-remember tip has saved at least 28 lives since the release of the ad—and probably many more.

So how can you save lives with marketing? Let’s see.

1. Set campaign goals that make sense. If you want to know why the Metro had trouble saving lives with a PSA, don’t blame the PSA. The main problem is that there were not many lives to save in the first place. Getting hit by public transit is not just a dumb way to die, it’s also a rare one. For example, from 2001 to 2012 the New York City Subway saw 134 people hit by trains and 41 killed each year on average. 35% of them were suicides. If that sounds bad, you have to remember the scale of the system. The subway logs 1.71 billion rides per year. That means your chances of accidentally getting killed that way on any given ride are about 1 in 64 million. While every life is worth saving, this is not exactly low hanging fruit.

The Vinnie Jones ad? Completely different story. Hands-only CPR can save the lives of cardiac arrest victims. In Britain, where CPR is not widely taught, your chance of surviving cardiac arrest is about 20%. In Seattle, where half the people know CPR, that rises to 50%. That big gap goes a long way to explaining why Vinnie Jones worked.

2. Align on your goals. You need to make sure the agency and the client, or whomever you’re working with, agree on the purpose of the effort. It’s not clear that the Metro and its agency agreed on the goals at all. They may have, but the effort certainly benefitted one more than the other.

3. Choose tactics that move those metrics. The brilliance of the Vinnie Jones spot lies in how it integrates its story with its purpose. “Staying Alive” not only provides the correct cadence for hand-only CPR, it’s literally what you’re trying to do.

4. Measure and learn. By the numbers, Dumb Ways to Die didn’t work for the Metro, but we can still learn from it. For example, we now know that even the best PSA in history will not solve that kind of problem. We also know that in other contexts a music video like this can get a huge audience.

You might argue that I’m being a little unfair and that the true measure of the video should be how it improved safety worldwide, since it went so viral. I have to confess, I’m more client-focused than that. The Melbourne Metro paid for the campaign; their system should have benefitted. Then again, 2013 also saw more people hit by New York subway trains than in 2012.

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