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Video Killed The Safety Card: Is Humor Getting The Point Across?

I recently watched a really great film. It starred Anna Faris and Rhys Darby in a combination cop/romantic/horror/western film. It was hilarious, yet thought-provoking. It was…a safety demonstration for Air New Zealand.

Times certainly have changed. Airlines have been moving away from the standard bored flight attendant in the aisle, daydreaming about what he or she will do on the layover after the flight, buckling and unbuckling a seatbelt for an equally bored audience. Now we have seatback televisions on many aircraft, bringing along with it celebrity-laden or just plain funny safety demonstrations. Even in the cases of a live safety demo, crews are often rewarded by becoming stars of their own viral videos by turning the required blah blah blah into a standup comedy routine. But while it’s undeniable that these entertaining versions of the safety demo are catching the eyes and ears of passengers (and even those on the ground, via YouTube), the questionable part is if this is an effective method of actually communicating pertinent information.

I noticed back when Virgin America released its five minute-long Safety Dance video that while I was watching the dance moves and trying my best to ignore the music, there was one thing I was not really noticing – the safety information. The video was still being circulated like crazy, especially among my airline friends, but I seemed to be the only one thinking that the whole literal song and dance was sort of blending the information into the background. I showed it to a friend, and asked her if she stopped noticing the safety information during the long routine. She agreed. After a while she stopped tuning into the message of the video – it became like having television on in the background at home without really watching what was on.

Of course, everything done by the airlines worldwide is strictly regulated, and these videos are now beginning to be scrutinized for content. The Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand said that the recent “Surfing Safari” Air New Zealand safety video, starring top surfers and models such as Laird Hamilton and Anastasia Ashley, “detracts from the scope and direction of the safety message.” Despite this admonishment, the video met the criteria laid out by the CAA and was approved for use by the airline.

A study done at the University of New South Wales did, in fact, find humor to initially attract the attention of participants, but caused the information to be retained less readily. But few studies have been done, which is surprising, considering the popularity of these productions and how increasingly involved they have become. And viral videos of crews singing and dancing their way through the briefing is there for the watching.

We are unlikely to stop seeing these mini-blockbusters or PA comedy routines not because the airlines are clamoring for people to understand safety, but for one very simple reason – incredibly effective viral marketing. These videos are immediately circulated for months and even years. But while this is proven to boost the mood of passengers onboard (who don’t happen to hate the song or comedy act being forced upon them, that is), it is stretching the demonstration into a five or so minute saga that often loses sight of the point. Marketing has now put safety on the back burner, and the airline industry overall seems to have no problem burying safety information under funny vignettes and celebrity cameos because it sells the public on their brands.

The new American Airlines video seems to get it right, however. It’s clear and concise and doesn’t feel like a cloying lecture. Is it hilarious? Not at all. But really, that isn’t the point of what we are trying to communicate. The point is safety, and as comfortable as we want people to be with the information we are supplying, safety is simply not funny, and sugar coating it isn’t leading passengers to retain it. It does help to sell seats, but we are simply not doing our jobs if people are missing the message. Kudos to American for staying on point.

Surprisingly, studies on the effectiveness of humorous briefings is low, but they have begun to be done. While I would hate to live in a world without Delta’s legendary safety videos (I am known to snort laughing at them any time I’m onboard), we need to make sure all these forms of the safety briefing make clear the very important information we need to provide. Hopefully there’s a happy medium here – we know how to attract a rapt audience now. But let’s not lose focus of the message.

Comments are Closed.
SamirD September 30, 2016

It's interesting how no one has done a comprehensive test on how well people who see the various safety video fare in an actual (simulated) emergency where they need to use what they were supposed to learn. I think that sort of feedback loop would produce actual videos or presentations that are more effective, humorous or not. If you've ever been to driving school, they show you the video of how Princess Diana died by not having on her safety belt. That hits the seat belt issue hard and in a real way. It would be nice to have some sort of stronger impact on people as that seems to get them awake and thinking. Showing an actual crash and people dying might be a bit far off, but showing the exact way to use the exact life vest, flotation cushion and exit on that particular plane model would be very helpful. It's amazing just how many different door styles there are and the different ways to open them. I always make it a point to look at the card and the door to make sure I know how to open it. Because if the person next to the door is screwing it up, you can be sure that I'm taking over.

simpleflyer September 29, 2016

"was very routine and structured " Although I have enjoyed the humourous safety videos (my first experience was with Air New Zealand's) zappid raises a very good point here. I have watched some videos and even though English is my first language, often I found the singing and rhyming of instructions difficult to understand. If I hadn't already known the instruction from previous demonstrations, I'm not sure I'd have learned from that video, what was expected. So it might be better if the actual instructions be spoken at least once as well as 'rhymed'. Repetition is necessary for retention; so is simplicity.The army has to teach a lot of young recruits to deal with dangerous situations, including doing, or not doing things, as a matter of ingrained learning - (e.g, one never, ever smokes on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, even when no planes are on the deck.) This surely doesn't mean that they can't ever use humour, but the main job is to get the point across clearly. That all said, maybe some studies could show how effective as learning (as opposed to entertainment) tools these videos are.

eng3 September 28, 2016

I think these videos are unnecessary. They are long and basically tell the passengers that the airline thinks that safety is a joke. Maybe passengers pay attention more (the first time) but they probably only remember whatever may be funny, not any safety info since the humor and safety message often are completely unrelated. How about a dramatic violent movie showing a crash and people not with seat belts being ejected and people who dont use live vests properly drowning. I bet people will remember that, but ofcourse you dont want to traumatize a plane full of people right before a flight. I think the old non-humor videos were fine. They could use the extra time to include more information and explain the reasons behind the rules. For example, don't inflate your life vest early or you may not be able to swim out. I doubt most people catch that in the humor videos. Also, I find it interesting that no safety videos see to show a brace position. In the "Sully" movie, the pilot orders everyone to brace and no one knows what to do. Now it is obvious why humor is used. A passenger will probably feel a little happier after watching a humorous video, thus giving them a better overall impression of the airline. That probably makes the airline a little more money. How about focusing on safety versus humor.

zappid September 28, 2016

I friend of mine recently flew with her grandmother, who was flying for the first time. The flight attendant didn't take the safety presentation seriously, which upset my friends grandmother. Flying for the first time can be very stressful, especially for the young and old and safety is probably one of their top priorities. When I first started flying as a child in the early 90's, the safety presentation was very routine and structured, which resonated its importance. When flight attendants take the safety presentation lightly, I can see how first-time flier might get upset. I, like dliesses, also pretend to pay attention to the presentation, just to set a good example for others and give the respect to the flight attendant, but I do also appreciate the humor, when it is included.

dliesse September 28, 2016

The real question is whether *newer* fliers are being distracted from the message has changed very little over the 50 years I've been flying (seat belts have changed, there were no overhead bins, we stored things under our own seats, and it was suggested that we read the safety card sometime during the flight). Coming from an airline family I at least pretend to pay attention to the briefing -- to set a good example -- though usually what I'm really doing is seeing if I can remember the exact wording just before the video says it.