In bid for fliers’ eyeballs, safety videos get creative

Bettina Wassener / New York Times News Service /


HONG KONG — Air New Zealand — the airline that has enlisted body-painted pilots, rugby stars and hobbits for its in-flight safety instructions — has deployed the special forces in the fight to make safety videos less boring: Bear Grylls, a bug-eating, urine-drinking, cliff-scaling British adventurer best known for the TV survival show “Man vs. Wild.”

Airlines’ “how to fasten your seat belt” instructions have been mandatory for many years, and for much of that time, they have been mostly ignored by world-weary frequent travelers.

Grylls’ running, crawling and rappelling performance in Air New Zealand’s latest instruction video is one of a growing number of innovative approaches designed to get passengers to pay attention. Mud-splattered and out of breath, Grylls does not just tell passengers where to find their life jackets — he jumps into a raging river to prove that the jackets work.

Perhaps surprisingly, these attempts to spice up the mind-numbing routine of the onboard safety spiel have arrived on airlines only relatively recently.

One of the first to try something out of the ordinary was Virgin America, which in 2007 rolled out a cheeky cartoon version of the safety announcement, featuring matadors, a nun and a fish.

In 2009, the British carrier Thomson Airways cast children as the crew giving the safety briefing. And last November, the U.S. carrier Delta Air Lines rolled out a video that gives the presentation some fresh twists — like the appearance of a rather large robot — in hopes of capturing passengers’ attention.

But possibly no airline has gone as offbeat — and, with Bear Grylls, as far off the plane — as Air New Zealand. Grylls may be an adventurer, but as far as Air New Zealand is concerned, he is on a well-trodden path. Before him have gone, among others, Richard Simmons, the wild-haired, sparkly shirted American fitness guru, whose aerobics-and-leotards version was on the airline’s seat-back screens in March 2011.

Late last year, there were assorted characters from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the release of which threw New Zealand — where it was filmed, as were the related “Lord of the Rings” movies — into a tizzy of Middle-earth-theme events.

And in 2009, the safety instructions were presented by Air New Zealand staff members clad in uniforms consisting of nothing but body paint. The airline’s tongue-in-cheek message, also portrayed in an advertising campaign at the time, was that it had “nothing to hide” — that its fares had none of the hidden extras that anger many passengers.

When the “Bare Essentials of Safety” clip came out, said Jodi Williams, the head of global brand development at Air New Zealand, “it was the first time that anyone had ever done anything like it — it took a completely different approach to what had been done before.”

The video was an instant hit, going viral on YouTube and giving the airline a new global visibility. It has been viewed more than 7 million times. The Grylls iteration — with the tag line “The Bear Essentials of Safety” — may be on track to become even more popular. Since it was introduced Feb. 27, the 4½-minute clip has been watched more than 2.1 million times. The Hobbit safety clip has drawn more than 10.5 million views.

“You know how it is: When you get on the plane, the most common reaction when the safety announcement comes on is ‘I hope it’s over quick,’” said Tim Launder, general manager of Weta, the visual effects company that worked with Air New Zealand on the Hobbit clip.

The challenge, he added, is to turn “something that people are reluctant to watch into something that people actually want to watch.”

The basic messages that must be conveyed in safety videos are mandatory, Williams said, but there is flexibility in how to present them. Air New Zealand works with its safety experts when producing the videos, and the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority is kept informed so it can chime in if there are any red flags, she said.

For Air New Zealand, however, the unconventional videos are about much more than checking off a box on safety regulations: they have become part of the airline’s identity, doubling as marketing tools and raising awareness of the carrier around the globe.

“We don’t have big budgets for big advertising,” Williams said, “so we have to work really hard to make our dollar stretch and get our share of voice.”

Moreover, because of New Zealand’s remoteness, “for many passengers, it’s their first experience of us, and the onboard video is a chance to really introduce our personality to them for the first time,” she added.

“If you come from a small country like New Zealand and you want to make an impression on the global stage, you’ve got to be innovative, and you’ve got to be fun,” said Launder of Weta.