A dancing pink bear, a space-bound shootout, a plane covered in sparkles and lots and lots of singing. Those are the magical ingredients mixed into Korean Air’s latest pre-flight safety video, played just before flights take off. Released online on Monday, the video stars the wildly popular South Korean K-pop supergroup SuperM. The Korean Air film joins a whole smorgasbord of airline videos hopping on the gimmicky, celebrity-endorsed pre-flight safety video trend.
Ever since 2007, when the then new airline Virgin America released its animated pre-flight safety video that featured a sassy deadpan narrator, airlines been following suit and get creative with their safety videos. Now many of them are ditching strait-laced safety spiels for wacky, kitschy and downright weird pre-flight videos. These videos, which were once created in order to convey essential safety emergency information, are now being shaped and directed in a way designed to make them go viral.
And that chase for virality seems to be working. In 2017, British Airways joined in on the creative pre-flight safety video craze, releasing a humorous film featuring the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton and Sir Ian McKellen, and it’s been viewed 13 million times on YouTube. To similar viral success, Korean Air’s K-pop pre-flight safety video has already amassed 1.1 million views. But are these videos actually all that effective in doing what they were designed to do – give us the info to keep us safe?
In some ways, yes. In others, not so much. Research is a little flimsy on this topic. In a paper released in 2015, academics from the University of New South Wales whether the use of humour or movie-themed sets in a pre-flight safety briefing adversely affected retention of information.
The researchers showed 82 participants one of three inflight safety videos. The first video was a standard pre-flight safety video, with a male narrator and a demonstration of safety procedures. In the second video, actors demonstrated the safety procedures while wearing aerobic clothes, and danced in between the safety demonstrations. The third video was set in the theme of a popular movie, and had actors dress in clothes that matched the film’s environment. The researchers found the humour and movie-based videos increased participants’ mood. But as for recall of safety information? Well, it was pretty poor.
On average, participants who had watched the humorous video were only able to recall 35 per cent of the safety information, while those in the movie-themed video were able to recall 47 per cent of the key safety information. Those in the standard video group, however, were able to recall 53 per cent of safety information, which, granted, is still not that high.
The researchers suggest that the humour or the use of a movie set may have distracted them from soaking in the key safety messages. “Videos that are humorous are good at maintaining passenger’s attention,” says Brett Molesworth, co-author of the study. “Where the vast majority fail is effectively communicating the important safety information which ironically is their primary purpose.”
A similar phenomenon has been witnessed in the realm of advertising, something that pre-flight safety videos have become a part of in recent years. In a 1990 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers discovered that humour was able to keep the attention of viewers, but disrupted the key messages of the advertising content. Participants paid more attention to the humour of the advert and less to the message they were trying to convey.
“What we do know about human cognition – the way people process information – is that there are limitations to the quantity of information a person is able to process at any point in time,” Molesworth says. “Working memory capacity in particular restraints – humour in particular – consumes a large part of this information processing capacity. When paired in time with an important piece of safety information, the processing of the humorous information takes precedence.”
So, are humorous pre-flight safety videos now just being used as a clever marketing exercise amongst airlines? Air New Zealand, for example, has had its reputation boosted thanks to its exorbitant pre-flight safety videos. In 2014, the airline released a Hobbit-themed safety video, starring actors from all three Hobbit films, and directed by New Zealand director Taika Waititi. It was called ‘The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made’, perfectly titled for the YouTube crowd.
“There’s no question that some of these have struck a chord,” says Rob Britton, adjunct professor of marketing at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and former head of advertising at American Airlines. “Air New Zealand’s Hobbit safety video has more than 20 million views on YouTube – probably more than have actually seen the video aboard their aircraft.”
“I still think the original intention was to add to the airline’s brand personality in the eyes of those who are onboard, and to create anticipation of the destination,” adds Adrian Palmer, professor of marketing and head of the department of marketing and reputation at the Henley Business School at the University of Reading. “But seeing the new marketing tool of video sharing platforms, enterprising airlines also have an eye on audiences outside of the plane.”
There are, however, rules and regulations set by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Federal Aviation Authority which both constrict and liberate the airline’s creativity. “All of our safety videos convey important safety messages in-line with New Zealand regulatory requirements, yet in a fun and engaging way,” says an Air New Zealand spokesperson. Passengers need to be briefed about the safety features onboard such as the seatbelts, oxygen masks, smoking, the brace position, the life jacket and the overhead compartments. As long as they cover those key safety details, they are given free rein.
“There is an issue that although these in-flight safety videos may contain all the regulatory safety information, this may be lost or become secondary to the other material,” Palmer says. “This is fine if you’re trying to build up liking and brand personality, but this is also about safety.”
Air travel is already becoming safer. But does that mean airlines should be moving attention away from the important elements and onto something tangential It’s tricky to measure whether pre-flight safety videos have helped in real-world instances. According to the International Air Transport Association commercial aviation accidents are in decline. In 2017, there was an accident rate of 1.08 per million flights, and a fatality risk of 0.09 per cent.
Britton says that despite the headlines hinting otherwise, flying has become astonishingly safe. “No airliner has crashed in the US in more than ten years, and in that time airlines in America have carried nine billion passengers,” he says. “But airlines are ever vigilant, and safety instructions are both required by law and a sensible extra caution.” He adds that he’s flown more than five million miles in more than 50 years, and he still watches the safety video.
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