AP/Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Since 2007, utilitarian safety videos have steadily been replaced by self-parodying, pop culture riffs. Here’s how it happened.

This holiday season, the 6.4 million Americans traveling by plane will not lack for entertaining content while they taxi to the runway. Many will remain glued to their phones, which may or may not be set to airplane mode. But many others will be compelled—whether because of actual interest, or the frenetic pace of the images parading eight inches in front of their faces—to pay attention to the safety video.

Ever since the introduction of in-flight entertainment screens in the 1980s, airline safety videos have been a quintessential feature of commercial aviation. For most of those years, these videos were virtually indistinguishable from one another: Smiling flight attendants would hit all of the FAA’s mandated talking points, assisted by earnest graphics and demonstrations.

But since the late Aughts, these straight-faced public service announcements have almost completely disappeared, to be replaced by spunky pop-culture riffs, irreverent humor, and eye-catching production.

In an industry governed by such strict regulations, there is very little airlines can do to differentiate themselves from their competition. So, in 2007, when the airline startup Virgin America sought to carve out its niche as the airline that “can make flying fun again,” in the words of its flamboyant founder Richard Branson, the in-flight safety video was one of the few features that could be tinkered with. Following in the footsteps of its sister airline, Virgin Atlantic, which had introduced animated safety videos in 1996 and 2001, Virgin America saw the safety video as an opportunity to communicate its playful brand identity.

In the video, an unlikely cast of characters, including a toreador and a tech-obsessed nun, demonstrate the safety instructions, while the video’s lead animator, Gordon Clark, winkingly describes their mundane acts. The visual style was meant to resemble doodles, Clark said, while its tone allowed the audience to feel in on the joke. “We were trying to make it funny, but we also wanted it to be gentle, and not particularly ham-fisted or cartoony. Not like a kids’ cartoon, but more sophisticated and dryer.”

At a time when social media was in its infancy, the video was not so much a viral sensation on the ground as an essential ingredient of the onboard atmosphere. “It made people relaxed when they sat on the plane,” Clark said. “We didn’t annoy them.”

Ironically, airline safety virality was first achieved by a relatively strait-laced video from Delta in 2008. The masses became obsessed with the video’s lead presenter, whose theatrical “no smoking” finger wag earned her something of a cult following, and the moniker “Deltalina.” The video “caused turbulence on the internet,” racking up nearly 300,000 views in one month on YouTube, according to a lifestyle piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of many media outlets around the world that covered the phenomenon.

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While Deltalina’s rise doesn’t sound particularly remarkable today, it served as a revelation for the industry, which began to see how safety videos could be used to increase brand visibility. In the ensuing years, airlines have pulled out nearly every gimmick imaginable to make their safety video a YouTube sensation. A Qatar Airlines video takes place at an FC Barcelona match, an El Al video takes the form of a cringeworthy Devo tribute, and Virgin America’s most recent video is a “Glee”-style musicale. Even sedate, legacy brands like British Airways, Singapore Airlines, United, and Air France have succumbed to the trend in recent years, with tasteful videos that offer their own unique spin on the genre.

No airline has pursued this strategy with the dedication of Air New Zealand, which has released 14 high-concept videos since 2009, racking up a total of 108 million views online, according to Jodi Williams, the airline’s general manager for global brand and content marketing. Their first foray into the genre was 2009’s “Bare Essentials,” in which the safety instructions are delivered by flight attendants clothed only in body paint. The video’s popularity paved the way for ever more ambitious projects, like “The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made,” a Lord of the Rings tribute complete with dwarves, elves, and battle scenes, boasting more than 18 million views on Youtube.

“Our safety videos have proven to be a hugely effective marketing tool and we continue to be amazed with the reactions they garner,” Williams said.

Of course, branding is only one of the reasons these kinds of videos have become the norm in recent years. Their rise also tracks closely with the widespread adoption of smartphones and social media. Contemporary air travelers are likely to have a great deal of experience watching short videos on small screens. Safety videos, like all other “content,” must actively compete for viewers’ attention.

“Technology is always evolving and content is becoming more readily available to all customers through various platforms. It does definitely put more pressure on airlines to develop engaging, timely, and relevant content,” said Anna Catchpole, a spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic.

A number of safety videos make this connection explicit. A 2016 safety video for Turkish Airlines features feats of digital video illusionism by Vine star Zach King. Delta’s “The Internetest Video on the Internet,” from 2015, manages to squeeze in all of the mandated safety instructions while referencing 22 internet memes, including Deltalina herself. At the end, a captain with a roll of Mentos in hand thanks the viewers for “paying attention,” before the video cuts to a massive Diet Coke and Mentos experiment on the tarmac. These are the types of videos people might ordinarily prefer to watch instead of a safety video, the airlines seem to assume, so they provide it all in one convenient package.  

The contemporary crop of airline safety videos appear to have a contradiction at their heart. On the one hand, they are designed to compel passengers to pay attention to important safety information that they might otherwise ignore. On the other hand, the videos contain so much extraneous data that it can be difficult to catch the actual instructions.

According to Alison McAfee, managing director of communications for the trade group Airlines for America, these kinds of videos are first and foremost about improving safety. “Our members want to make sure everyone, including even the most frequent travelers, listens to and abides by the safety briefings. To do so, airlines are getting more and more creative to maintain interest in the standard safety information,” she wrote in an email.

Williams echoed that statement. “As a result of our creative take on safety videos, we’ve seen more customers paying closer attention to them,” she said.

Others are more skeptical of their effectiveness. Brett Molesworth, an aviation researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told the Wall Street Journal that people tend to remember the funny parts of these videos, rather than the safety instructions. Current regulations allow airlines free reign to include whatever they want in airline safety briefings, as long as the required information is clearly stated. Les Dorr, an FAA spokesperson, said that the FAA is in the process of revising their guidelines for these presentations.

It’s difficult to say whether today’s airline passengers know safety protocols better thanks to these videos, because air travel has become incredibly safe. 2016 marked the third straight year with zero fatalities on commercial flights in the United States, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The accident rate for global aviation decreased by a factor of 3 between 2010 and 2014. Passengers have few opportunities to demonstrate whether or not they absorbed the safety instructions.

With plane crashes hardly ever in the news these days, safety videos may no longer need to convey a sense of psychological comfort and security, even while they continue to convey all of the requisite information. But if passengers aren’t thinking about their safety as much as they may have in the past, neither are they awed by the romance of flight, as cost-cutting measures continue to erode customer service.

“It’s more like taking a bus,” Clark said. “It’s not as much of a special occasion as it used to be… It’s been demystified. People used to dress up when they used to take planes in the olden days.”

Whereas air travel was formerly characterized by a sense of formality and glamour, today’s experience is anything but. As passengers settle into minuscule seats and look forward to a complimentary pack of peanuts, they may find themselves craving some escapist entertainment. It follows, then, that the one thing passengers are forced to watch onboard should invite them to forget their present circumstances, if only for the duration of that three-minute clip.

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