Passengers to Airlines: Enough With the Wacky Safety Videos

Some airlines have turned dull safety videos into big-budget productions to grab passengers’ attention. But research shows that viewers may remember the sizzle but not the safety tips. Photo: Virgin America

Every time the 11-year-old girl starts rapping about oxygen masks, Joe Inglish stops listening. Like many frequent travelers, he’s over the overdone airline safety videos, including Virgin America VA 0.18 % ’s song-and-dance routine.

“It’s like no, no, no more!” says the software engineer from Portland, Ore.

Airlines have turned the sonorous three-minute safety briefing into big-budget extravaganzas. Air New Zealand AIR 3.80 % ’s current blockbuster, filmed at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, stars actress Anna Faris and Kiwi comedian Rhys Darby . Air France AFLYY 2.06 % flaunts French flair in a video that claims the seat belt “will elegantly highlight your waistline.” A Delta Air Lines DAL 0.49 % flight attendant dubbed “Deltalina” became a media sensation for wagging her finger for no smoking.

Virgin America’s video made its debut in 2013 and has 11.9 million YouTube views and a favorable New Yorker magazine theatrical review. (“Remarkable signs of the cinematic unconscious.”) People mainly think it’s pretty entertaining, says Abby Lunardini, vice president of brand marketing.

Anna Faris

Last month American Airlines AAL -0.18 % gave in, launching a visually complex video shot on a Toronto sound stage instead of its traditional warm “welcome aboard.”

If American’s maze of people marching to a buoyant beat had fleece on, frequent traveler Amy Au says, it would look like an Old Navy commercial. The pace is so feverish she says she has missed safety information or found herself transfixed by silver hands that creepily reach around a passenger’s waist from behind.

“It’s very creative, but the message wasn’t clear,” the Chicago corporate attorney says.

Research by academics who specialize in aviation safety suggests people remember the jokes instead of the instructions.

American Airlines uses a visually complicated safety video filmed on a sound stage. Photo: American Airlines

Airlines say passengers watch the entertaining videos much more than standard briefings. “The more layered it is, so that every time you watch it you see something slightly different, the more people actually listen to it and retain it,” says Fern Fernandez, American’s marketing vice president.

Mark Svevar, a supply-chain consultant from Boston, says Delta jumped the shark with its “Safetys” video—an Oscars parody that played months past award season. “That one was painful from the get-go,” he says.

The screaming goat was one of the past-its-prime memes Adam Urban couldn’t stomach in that video. And the goat precedes the clucking chicken.

Safety videos are an important part of the flying process, says Mr. Urban, a Boston-based lighting designer who logs 150,000 miles a year on Delta. He thinks they should be neither too dry nor too wild. “It’s the middle ground where it works,” he says.

Carriers say catchy videos can cost as much as $1 million apiece, with multiple versions for different aircraft types and different languages. They can jazz up stodgy reputations on social media, market brands to consumers, lighten the mood of frazzled fliers and distract from cramped legroom. And the messages really do matter.

A girl raps about how to use an oxygen mask in Virgin America’s safety video. Photo: Virgin America

Several seconds of frozen panic could be fatal when you have only 90 seconds to escape in a crowd. What might seem like inane instructions, such as how to unbuckle a seat belt, can be important. In emergencies, some passengers revert to what they know and try to punch a button as if releasing a car seat belt, instead of lifting the flap, crash investigators say.

Only 33 out of 150 passengers on US Airways Flight 1549 had a life vest after landing in the Hudson River in 2009, and only four properly put them on, remembering to fasten the waist strap, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Airlines say they try to rotate videos to maintain interest and even embed subliminal tricks to hook frequent fliers. American created its soundtrack with airport and airplane noises—a familiar ding can surprise even expert fliers and keep them watching.

And its new video has an homage to finger-wagging Deltalina. “We like to have fun with our competitors,” American’s Mr. Fernandez says.

United Airlines slips “Easter eggs” into videos such as repeat characters in different settings, says Mark Krolick, managing director of marketing and product development. In United’s latest, a groom who runs away from his Hawaiian beach wedding shows up later in New York. “We know we have frequent travelers and some of them will be seeing these videos on a fairly regular basis,” Mr. Krolick says.

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The Federal Aviation Administration says it reviews each airline’s cabin safety program, including videos. “It does not matter how the information is communicated, as long as the required information is there,” an FAA spokeswoman says. The agency says it doesn’t know of any studies on safety-video efficacy.

Aviation-safety researcher Brett Molesworth and colleagues showed different kinds of briefings to people and measured retention. “Once you include humor, people recall the humorous aspect as opposed to the message,” says Mr. Molesworth of the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

He thinks regulators need to update 30-year-old requirements, paring information no longer relevant and adding new warnings, such as an admonition to leave behind carry-on baggage in emergencies.

The New Zealand Civil Aviation Administration chided Air New Zealand for a surfing-themed video featuring sexy surfers, saying “extraneous material detracts from the scope and direction of the safety message.” The CAA nonetheless allowed the video.

In July, Air New Zealand replaced that video with the Hollywood-themed production. The airline said its videos are “in line with New Zealand regulatory requirements.”

Delta did hear complaints about “Safetys,” such as passengers on 6 a.m. departures disturbed by loud noises, says Julieta McCurry, director of marketing communications. “It did its job to get people to pay attention again,” she says.

Delta’s new video is 100% goat-free. The airline says one reason for the tone change is it decided to stop trying to one-up rivals in the safety video arms race. It hopes to refresh the straightforward videos every month or two through 2017 to keep frequent fliers engaged.

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