A few years ago, Melbourne’s metropolitan rail service wanted passengers to stop behaving so recklessly around trains. So they hired an agency to create an entire campaign around train safety.
A key piece of that campaign was an animated video, Dumb Ways to Die, which featured a catchy tune about creatures who die in ridiculous ways. Like eating a two-week old unrefrigerated pie.
The video achieved success that most public service campaigns can only dream of. Within 24 hours of its launch in November 2012, the song reached the iTunes top 10 chart. Within a week, it had 20 million views.
Several years later, it was still the third most shared ad of all time.
Not viral—just memorable
Death by train is no laughing matter, but sometimes, clearly, humor works. And you don’t need to achieve the same level of buzz as Metro Trains: your video just needs to be memorable for those who watch it.
Writing in The Atlantic, author Nigel Hollis said that if the effect of an ad is to last longer than a few seconds,
[it] must create a virtual magnifying glass that highlights something specific in relation to the brand—some fact, idea, or impression—and give it enough emotional charge to become established in memory.
These funny videos about serious subjects both attract attention and help viewers remember the brand and message.
#1: Rethink Breast Cancer Presents: Your Man Reminder
Many young women aren’t checking their breasts regularly, according to a Canada-based breast cancer education charity, so they created a video to promote their new breast check reminder app. This PSA prompted one YouTuber to ask, “What’s on deck for prostate cancer awareness month?” Oh, and don’t forget to watch the extended dance cut.
#2: The Radi-Aid App: Change a Life With Just One Swipe
The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) explores how stereotypes harm dignity in this video for a fictitious fundraising app. SAIH created the Golden Radiator Awards to honor fundraising videos that challenge perceptions. See also Let’s Save Africa! – Gone Wrong and Who Wants to Be a Volunteer?
#3 Wasting Water is Weird
How do you get Americans to stop wasting so much water? This PSA series centers on Rip the Drip, a character much like Jiminy Cricket, if Jiminy Cricket had blunt greasy bangs, wore a stained tank top, and made everyone feel uncomfortable by his very presence. Created by the Shelton Group, a Tennessee marketing agency focused exclusively on energy and the environment, the spots are at once creepy and hilarious.
#4: If Men Had Periods
Menstrual hygiene may be an uncomfortable topic for many people, but WaterAid—an international charity that aims to improve people’s access to safe water, hygiene, and sanitation—wanted to raised awareness about the more than 1 billion women who don’t have access to a toilet during their periods. Winner of a Golden Radiator Award, videos in this humorous campaign end with a straightforward call-to-action: sign a petition.
#5: Jane St. (NSFW)
If I’ve been guilty of binge-watching anything lately, it’s the excellent satirical videos from john st., a creative collaborative based in Toronto that’s done (serious) work for Doctors Without Borders. While the commercialization of female empowerment isn’t as critical an issue as, say, breast cancer, this video still has an important message. And the writing is razor-sharp.
#6: Setting the Bar Low
The Environmental Working Group’s EWG VERIFIED™ mark is a clear way of showing that personal care products meet certain standards, such as not containing harmful ingredients. In this video, they use humorous stories of underachievers to make a very reasonable request: “that manufacturers try harder not to make us sick.”
#7: The Dumbest Word is Uninsured
In a video that has taken on new poignancy in our current healthcare battle, the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative urges people to get insured stat. “Be aware that government pays a share to help you get affordable care,” raps the narrator, who kinda-sorta sounds like Eminem. The video wasn’t as popular as “Dumb Ways to Die,” but the tune is no less catchy.
#8: Which is Hotter, the Planet or Ian Somerhalder?
Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously certainly isn’t funny—the award-winning documentary series focuses on global warming. But this behind-the-scenes “interview” takes a humorous approach to the issue, mixing facts and fun as a scientist is asked about both the state of our planet and actor Ian Somerhalder’s appeal.
#9: If We Cared About The Environment Like We Care About Sports (NSFW)
Courtesy of Buzzfeed, this video imagines an alternative reality where people are as invested in the environment as they are in their favorite sports team. It’s a world where Al Gore is a real-life superhero, the president’s climate speech is DVR’ed, and groups of friends stay glued to “E-SPAN” to see the outcome of a mountaintop removal bill.
#10: Your mo will get fuller with Nick Offerman
If you’re trying to raise awareness about men’s health issues for Movember, it certainly helps to have a famous face attached to the issue. And not just any famous face—that of Nick Offerman, whose mustache has achieve its own level of celebrity, alongside the beard of Lincoln and the eyebrow of Bert. In this video, Offerman offers words of support to Movember participants stuck in the awkward in-between stage.
With humor, tread carefully
Humor is hard to get right. It’s difficult to walk the line between irreverent and inappropriate, between whip-smart and tone-deaf. Knowing your audience—and knowing what types of content they respond to—is essential.
Indeed, “Dumb Ways to Die” aimed to reach young people, who traditionally pay little attention to advertising, especially when it’s telling them how to behave.
According to the executive creative director at McCann Melbourne, the agency that created the campaign, “If you’re making content, you have to ask yourself honestly the question: ‘would I pay to own this?’ If you are making content, you have to make it as good as the stuff that people are buying on iTunes.”
In other words, if it’s going to be funny, it’s got to be good.
Open Eye Creative is a small video production company with a huge vision: to use the power of story to strengthen and propel organizations that are changing the world. Read more.