Dumb ways to die, smart ways to kill (time)

"Dumb Ways to Die" is a phenomenon as both YouTube video and smartphone game. Could it make the leap to television?

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

Don't donate both kidneys. Don't swallow superglue. Don't take your helmet off in outer space.

These and other useful summer-safety tips are all-too-familiar to kids and their parents for whom the season's soundtrack is the earworm "Dumb Ways to Die," set to infinite repeat. "Dumb Ways to Die" is the cheerful Australian indie single that doubles as a train-safety campaign jingle. As of last month, it is also a game for iPhone and Android that lets you save the little Aussie Lima beans in the song's video from various dumb hazards: castrating piranhas, stale benzos, drug dealers with clubs.

Sound inappropriate for children? It's not. "Dumb Ways to Die" originated as a McCann-Erickson campaign to enliven the standard train-safety PSA. Its last verse tells about minding the gap, not following a balloon onto the train track and not circumnavigating the gates that keeps cars off tracks when trains are coming. Making this stunty tempt-fate stuff sound as moronic as poking a wasps' nest or selling your organs on the Internet has proven to be an ingenious idea. Kids and adults alike loved the ad--first Down Under and then everywhere else--and it has pushed train safety into minds that probably hadn't considered it since before the succinct British-y fun of "mind the gap" turned to t-shirt kitsch. As of today, the video is nearing 55 million views on YouTube.

Dying in a dumb way-- accidental but still quasi-suicidal, because you should know better--is a good thing to make silly. Elevator surfing in dorms kills people; auto-erotic asphyxiation kills people; drunk boating kills people. And yet every minute of every day these things strike us as larky good ideas--or at least as interesting mischief. By reminding us that they're fatal but also just mortifyingly dumb, the campaign is a winner.

The game's good too. It demands a little dexterity, and uses the full haptic range of a touchscreen phone. You tap, rub and shake your device, all while on the clock. You save the little bean dudes from death by toaster, death by psycho killer and death by slippery vomit. It's satisfying, though not necessarily educational.

In the meantime, no one seems prepared to let "Dumb Ways to Die" die. Like Angry Birds, this game has supplied imaginations with a set of genderless, raceless super-characters with some glee and chutzpah lacked by blanker pre-digital predecessors like Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse. While the game is nowhere near as engrossing as the peerless Angry Birds---still unmatched in its category--the beans are good fodder. I'd like to see them on a kids' show about biology, in fact. Why do we need oxygen? Two kidneys? What does electricity do to the human heart?

Making actual programming is a long-standing fantasy of copywriters and designers. It’s usually a bust. Anyone remember the horrid sitcom based on the Geico cavemen? So it's satisfying to see the old Madison Avenue firm of McCann nail a real and durable and globally-legible pop story with "Dumb Ways to Die." Maybe it's the start of something good--or maybe not. If the transition to a bigger screen fails, it wouldn’t be the dumbest way for the campaign to die.

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