Dumb Ways to Disseminate?

I’m a podcast nut. I let podcasts mediate my news, my literature, even my experience of viral marketing. Hardly anything gets to me unfiltered by my medium-du-jour. This is how I initially experienced the Dumb Ways to Die rail safety awareness campaign by Melbourne’s Metro Trains. I’ve been participating in a hyperreal experience of the campaign via ABC’s Common Knowledge (ABC Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012) and analysis on Mumbrella (Hughes 2012 and Mumbrella 2012). They’ve led me to thoughts on virality and the essential interplay between the effects (transmission) and the culturalist (ritual) views of communication.

I often hear advertising creative friends complain about digital briefs which are accompanied by the demand ‘Make it go viral’, as though this can be contrived. Many articles claim that it can, and Carey would probably attribute the action of ‘sharing’ to the cultural view of media, namely creative elements which generate and reflect “fellowship” and “commonality” (Carey 2002, p. 39). But, as Tim Burrowes points out (ABC Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012), awareness campaigns are traditionally for the purpose of saving (or controlling) lives – a function aligned with the effects model. Ritual is harnessed to disseminate, but the measuring of click behaviour seems to have usurped the importance of accounting for offline behavioural change; ‘Effects’ measurements have been amputated at the metrics.

Viral media represents an additional process in the hypodermic model: instead of a central source ‘injecting’ passive receivers (Gitlin 1978, p. 210), the receivers ‘infect’ others. As Carey says, “communication is a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people” (Carey 2002, 36). Viral marketing achieves this end exponentially, but I question whether online distribution is enough to affect social and behavioural change: Is sharing-by-click too passive to do the job? Under the culturalist model, sharing would attest to a campaign’s success – and for a branding campaign, a viral result would be more than adequate. This campaign has the potential to save lives, but with efficacy measured in clicks and shares, we may never know if its popularity has averted a death.

Carey hints at the flaw in viral outcomes: measuring effects in numbers alone is just easier. Media pundits have historically congratulated viral marketers on their statistical ‘scorecards’, while questions about cultural influences like demographics are unpopular (ABC Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012). With a viral result, the question of whether a cutesy jingle and some fluffy graphics stack up to the bone-crunchingly graphic ‘offensive’ style awareness campaigns of the past becomes moot. Carey explains the resistance to cultural view of media, saying “This intellectual aversion to the idea of culture derives in part from obsessive individualism” and says that culture “provides ethnocentric error” (Carey 2002, p. 40). It’s easy to see how virality as an end in itself can be very seductive for campaign creators. Record stats achieved amid much peer-gushing? Job done!

Criticism and questioning like that by Hugh Stephens in a subsequent Mumbrella post may hail the eventual maturation of virality as a discrete medium (Hughes 2012). It seems the question finally being asked is not how to transmit the message to the most people in the shortest space of time (transmission), but how to then make those messages stick in the minds of the people who need to hear them most (culture). Dissemination is only part of the equation: culture can be harnessed to distribute a message, but equating “vanity metrics” with social change is a dangerous model of efficacy (Hughes 2012).


Carey, J 2002, ‘A cultural approach to communication’, in McQuail D (ed.), McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory, McQuail, Sage, London, pp. 36-45.

Gitlin, T 1978, ‘Media sociology: The dominant paradigm’, Theory and Society, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 205-253.

Hughes, S 2012, Stop using vanity metrics to measure behaviour change, Mumbrella, viewed 3 January 2013, <http://mumbrella.com.au/stop-using-vanity-metrics-to-measure-behaviour-change-126713>.

Mumbrella 2012, Metro Trains ‘Dumb ways to die’ video goes viral, viewed 3 January 2013, <http://mumbrella.com.au/metro-trains-dumb-ways-to-die-video-goes-viral-126171>.

Radio National: Common Knowledge 2012, Dumb Ways to Die and TLDR, Podcast, viewed 12 December 2012, <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/commonknowledge/november-25/4382126&gt;.


2 thoughts on “Dumb Ways to Disseminate?

  1. Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed it. Hugh’s article was cross-posted on Croakey and I responded there: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/croakey/2012/11/30/the-dumb-ways-to-die-campaign-will-it-make-a-difference-to-train-safety/#comment-5765

    I’m one of many social marketing practitioners who resent the positivist-individualist-behaviourist takeover of our field, along with its reinscription of human cognition as a set of psychological factors to which a campaign applies leverage to produce a uniform and predictable behavioural outcome — a technologistic view of human nature that has not made sense since the heyday of propaganda in the 1950s.

    • thepomoslso says:

      Hey Daniel,
      Thanks for commenting. Yes it’s selective positivism. There’s a bit of a denial that the desire for virality has a social source. But I do think discussions like this help the industry mature. Stay posted for my interview with a top digital CD regarding his side of the story.

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