For the next few months, if you fly United Airlines, you can expect to see an in-flight safety video that doubles as a promotion for Columbia Pictures’ Spider-Man: Far From Home. For example, the superhero uses his web shooters to capture a man and thrusts him into an airline seat — where a flight attendant proceeds to explain how he should fasten his seat belt.
Airline-safety messages used to have the drab feel of corporate instructional videos, but in the last decade and a half, airlines have increasingly invested in more elaborate and expensive presentations, up to and including the Hollywood cross-promotion now playing on United. They’ve also been updating and refreshing the videos more frequently; in the case of Delta Air Lines, sometimes as often as four times a year.
Airlines are going to all this trouble for two reasons: Passengers are more likely to recall safety instructions when they are presented in an engaging manner; and airlines have come to realize the videos offered a previously unexploited opportunity to present a brand message to a captive audience.
Brett Molesworth, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales, has conducted research showing that humorous safety videos perform modestly better than ordinary safety videos at keeping viewers’ attention and at getting them to recall safety messages, but that recall is unfortunately poor with any kind of briefing. So the airlines keep trying to come up with ways to get you to pay attention.
“We feel so passionately that you need to watch the safety video every time you’re on the plane,” said Mark Krolick, a vice-president for marketing at United.
Of course, there is an additional reason they want you to watch every time: The videos increasingly have something to say about the airline’s brand and product. At each United, American, and Delta, safety videos are overseen by the marketing department, and brand messaging is a secondary but important objective of the video presentation.
“As the millennials become more and more the primary traveling audience, as they mature in the workforce, ensuring that we’ve got content that is more and more relevant is important,” said Krolick. “And that goes way, way beyond safety videos. It goes to our visual branding, programs, and promotions.”
American’s current video — a slick soundstage production released in 2016 and designed to evoke the aircraft environment without actually showing a plane — appears to derive some visual inspiration from Air France’s, and similarly positions flying on American as chic.
“Most in the industry were using humor or celebrities,” says Janelle Anderson, American’s vice-president of global marketing. “We really wanted to take a different approach than that. We felt this was a bit more artistic and broke through in a way that was creative and innovative.”
The video is now the oldest among those currently running on the major US carriers, though Anderson says the airline is in the “concepting phase” of a rebranding that will include a new safety video.
United and Delta are more focused on emphasizing the global and diverse nature of their companies and route networks. Prior to the Spider-Man video, United produced a succession of elaborate videos called “Safety is Global,” demonstrating safety situations in exotic and sometimes humorous settings, such as a Hawaiian beach wedding in which the groom follows the exit-path lights and signs to run safely away from the altar. The most recent edition, which appeared to take place in locations from a Brazilian carnival to a German beer hall to the Arctic, was actually shot almost entirely in Chile, since the country offers a wide variety of climatic landscapes in one time zone. The “global” theme of the videos aligns with United’s emphasis on its especially broad international network of destinations and its membership in the largest global airline alliance, the Star Alliance.
Delta kicked off the US trend of more personality-driven safety videos by introducing finger-wagging Deltalina in 2008. “That was really the start of this, right? And with anything that’s new, you really never know how it’s going to take off,” said Julieta McCurry, Delta’s managing director for global marketing communications. “That’s the approach: Try something different, something a little more engaging.”
In recent years, Delta has moved away from jokey videos full of visual gags in favor of more sober ones that emphasize the brand’s history and global reach. Lately they have also featured messages about diversity and global interconnection that seem almost political in the Trump era.
“It’s that idea of getting people to go out into the world, to experience new cultures, to engage with people maybe they otherwise wouldn’t, and open their minds and really understand the world is smaller than we think,” said McCurry, when I asked what is meant by a slogan from one of the videos: “The first step toward connection is departure.”
United ordinarily puts out a new video about every 18 months, though special editions like the Spider-Man video and videos featuring Olympic athletes run more briefly, for only a few months. Delta can afford to revise its videos several times a year, in part because it produces them more simply. Unlike the lavish productions from United and American (and some foreign carriers), most of Delta’s videos are shot aboard its own aircraft, with narrative structures that make it possible to shoot multiple videos in a single session, while sharing visual elements like aircraft-specific exit diagrams across editions.
These airlines’ huge global reach reflects a reason they can pour more resources into their safety videos than they used to: Consolidation has made them so large that a safety video that runs even for just one year might be viewed about a hundred million times, making it a mass-marketing communication worthy of meaningful investment. Another way to think about it is that safety videos on each of the largest carriers draw about as many views of the course of the year as the Super Bowl.
Smaller carriers tend to make different choices. Besides the biggest three, the only other US carrier that routinely uses a video safety briefing is Hawaiian Airlines, whose video includes a flight attendant using hula dance moves to demonstrate the locations of the aircraft exits. Others (including Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue, Spirit, and Frontier) rely on live safety presentations from flight attendants, in some cases because few or none of their aircraft feature seat-back television screens. Virgin America used to use an elaborate, song-and-dance safety video made by Hollywood director Jon Chu, but when Alaska acquired Virgin it did away not just with the safety video but with the seat-back entertainment systems on which it used to play.
Some international global carriers, like Swiss, have stuck with straightforward, to-the-point, dare I say boring videos. At the other end of the spectrum, Air New Zealand has produced a wacky, fitness-themed safety video starring Richard Simmons and an epic video themed after Lord of the Rings. In some cases — and particularly for partly state-owned carriers like Air New Zealand — these high-profile (and sometimes controversial) safety videos can serve a triple purpose: safety, marketing the airline, and marketing the country as a tourist destination. The airline even drew criticism in 2016 from New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority for producing a surf-themed safety video containing “extraneous material” that “detracts from the scope and direction of the safety message.”
Perhaps the best indicator of consumer interest in the more elaborately produced videos is an auction United Airlines recently conducted. Customers were invited to bid frequent-flyer miles for the opportunity to bring a guest and appear as extras in the currently airing safety video. The winning mother and daughter bid 600,001 MileagePlus miles — enough to buy five round-trip, business-class tickets between the United States and Europe — for the opportunity to appear in the video.
At the time of bidding, they didn’t even know they would be appearing in a video with a Spider-Man theme. But they likely did know the video would be seen by tens of millions of viewers, and that United would be doing its best to make sure they paid attention.