How a Small Airline Made Safety Videos the Best Part of Flying

airline safety videos

In-flight safety videos, like prescription drug disclaimers, were always the easiest part of your day to tune out. That is, until Betty White appeared on-screen to crack jokes about sex in airplane bathrooms.

The element of surprise and high play is, at its core, the philosophy behind Air New Zealand’s safety videos. The small airline (its stable of 103 planes is about 6% as large as American Airlines’ fleet) has taken a dull chore and turned it into a viral video phenomenon, complete with jaw-dropping shots from its home country and A-list Hollywood actors. And though competitors like American and Virgin America have drawn attention for their stylish safety videos lately, the kiwis more or less invented the genre -- and then perfected it.

It began with nude flight attendants

New Zealand is a country known for coming up with outlandish innovations -- this is, after all, the country that invented bungee jumping. Naturally its namesake airline would also take risks. In 2009, the airline embarked on a risqué marketing campaign called “Nothing to Hide,” which featured Air New Zealand passengers and crew wearing only body paint. Among the ideas thrown around for the campaign was a new safety video, where the plane’s various safety features would be told by a body-painted cast.

“Safety videos were something that was totally untouched,” says Jodi Williams, who oversees the videos’ production as the airline’s global brand and content marketing manager. “They were highly regulatory, and people just tuned out because of their dry nature. So we saw a way to be innovative and take that untouched formula, and turn it on its head.”

The result was The Bare Essentials of Safety, a video that did 7 million views in those 2009 days before Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter really had the power to send a silly-serious video by an obscure airline rocketing around the world.

Suddenly the last thing anyone in the world wanted to watch was, somehow, actually pretty cool. “No one would have anticipated the success it would have,” said Williams. “But people were so used to seeing the same information presented the same way, to produce something that’s actually engaging got us a lot of global attention.”

Richard Simmons and Betty White bring even broader appeal

The hardest thing to make is a second straight hit. While the shock value of an entire flight crew covered in body paint worked for a first-time gimmick, the airline knew it would need to do more to keep the viral hits coming. And having already exhausted the internet’s largest traffic driver -- naked people -- it moved on to its second largest: celebrities.

Air New Zealand’s first venture into celebrity safety videos came in 2011. The airline wanted the next production to center around 1980s fitness videos, with bright colors and synth-happy music. Naturally, they tapped Richard Simmons, the erstwhile “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” host and veritable human definition of kitsch.

“We were surprised he had such great awareness across generations,” Williams says. “And that recognition of ’80s music and Richard Simmons came together to create something entertaining.”

The final product was Mile-High Madness, a video with 3 million views to date that set a precedent for how Air New Zealand would approach future productions; nearly every video since has featured a celebrity. Among the most popular is a spoof on Men in Black featuring New Zealand’s national rugby team, The Allblacks, dressed as intergalactic alien fighters, singing an airline-safety version of the Will Smith hit. Another stars favorite New Zealand son Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood, and characters from Lord of the Rings, traipsing through Middle Earth in a video tied to the opening of The Hobbit. And lest we forget Safety Old School with Betty White and her friends at a senior center, making a not-so-subtle reference to people having sex in airplane bathrooms.

The celebrities involved depend on the theme of the video, and its marketing aim. For example, Summer of Safety, which ran on Air NZ flights this summer, featured Rachel Hunter and other native kiwis in New Zealand’s beachy Bay of Islands, meant to inspire a sense of summer nostalgia among natives. Others, like the recent Fantastical Journey with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Katie Holmes was designed to appeal to passengers in parts of the world where those celebrities have high visibility, most notably southeast Asia and South America.

In total, Air New Zealand’s 14 safety videos have racked up 108 million views on the airline’s official YouTube channel. The Hobbit-themed Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made has gotten 18 million views. Fantastical Voyage has already notched over 27 million. These aren’t Gangnam Style numbers, exactly, but they’re not too shabby for vids that took the most boring part of air travel -- the wake-me-when-it’s-over safety briefing -- and turned it into legit pop culture.

How the videos get made

The videos are produced like any other piece of video content, except the entire process is overseen by New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority. This means the CAA looks at the script to make sure it’s hitting all the safety notes, in the order they want them hit. Then the agency follows along during every stage of production.

Once the CAA gives the go-ahead on the script, the Air New Zealand marketing team reaches out to celebrities and marketing partners. For example, for the Men in Black video the airline worked with Sony to secure rights to the song and film props. Then they worked with the Allblacks to find players willing to dance around in dark suits with alien puppets. The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made was timed to promote The Hobbit’s release in theaters, which helped to get Jackson and Wood on board.

Once rights are secured and talent has signed on, production begins. To keep up with different audiences and platforms, each one entails a suite of nearly 30 different pieces: different segments for different aircraft, a YouTube teaser, cuts for Instagram and Snapchat, Asian cuts for WeChat, on and on. The in-flight video is shipped to the Air New Zealand fleet about six weeks before it goes live.

“It’s not about just the safety video anymore,” Williams says. “They’ve become entire marketing campaigns, with different audiences and markets, and you’re constantly looking for ways to evolve and engage.”

Safety videos as a source of national pride

In focus groups with New Zealanders, Williams says, they compliment the safety videos for showcasing the country’s personality and its overlooked destinations. And since Kiwis want the world to love New Zealand as much as they do, the videos also foster a sense of pride.

“We’re a small country competing on a world stage,” said Williams. “So the impact the videos have on the interest in the airline, and in the destinations, is significant. We’ll run special fares (in conjunction with a video launch) and we see that more people are being driven to our website to see what New Zealand has to offer.”

As for the copycats, Williams diplomatically says the airline is happy when it sees the Deltas and Virgins of the world elevating their own safety videos. Though she says no airlines ever reached out to Air New Zealand for suggestions, she knows where they got their inspiration.

“Look, the videos have gained a name for themselves,” she said. “But I’m sure someone (at those airlines) looked at and decided they wanted to give it a go. People know about our videos before they know about the airline, and we haven’t escaped the notice of big airlines. And if it means they’re giving the customer in the seat something that’s entertaining too, that’s a great thing.”

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who saw Summer of Safety nine times this summer. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.