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Oops! They Did It Again. What to Know About Sharks and Aviation Safety

Are airline safety videos over, or can a well plotted story-building formula survive a ditching?

Life Vest

Back in the day, when I wasn’t busy helping make aircraft interiors beautiful, I persuaded cabin crew that it was important to kick sharks in the nose.

This was more theory than practice. But it was based on expert survival advice for the unimaginable consequences of an aircraft ditching.

Discussing preparations for an aircraft ditching involved overcoming the audience objection, “That’s probably never going to happen.”

This reaction was based on the indisputable fact that landing a large commercial aircraft on the water–without it breaking up into many little pieces–is a difficult operation.

Still, ditching training is required because it can and has happened. However remote, we must consider all possible emergency conditions in airline safety procedures.

The company I worked for specifically dealt in water survival devices (lifejackets and life rafts). It was part of my job to help crew focus on what to do on the off-chance that they found themselves caring for passengers in open waters.

This was even before US Airways 1549, the exception that proved all the rules.

Though I referenced several other previous aircraft ditching events, it was difficult to persuade airline crew and engineers to pay close attention when they were betting it would never happen to them.

That’s how “kick the shark” was born.

One of our survival equipment lead managers had arrived to Miami from Cuba on an improvised raft. It was a harrowing journey which highlighted the dangers lurking in the oceans. He was a strong free diver. He was the sort of man who spent weekends under water hunting barracuda because they made a nice meal, and spearing fish was fun.

In short, he had some street-cred for dealing with sharks. He’d met many of them and lived to tell about it. He told me that they could be fought off–in fact disorientated–by punching or kicking them square on the nose.

I wasn’t willing to put myself in a position to try either tactic. But punching sharks sounded far more dangerous, because it involved placing the head much closer to the offending shark. So I went with the “kick the shark” recommendation.

The response I usually got from my dozing audience when I mentioned the “kick the shark” technique was exactly what I wanted: “Huh? What did she just say? She must be mad!”

But, suddenly, they were awake and paying attention. I doused the rest of my presentation with an adequate sprinkling of similar attention-grabbers.

Each time the audience threatened to fade away, I woke them up with another “you try that if you like, but I’m fine as I am” survival technique.

What can I say for myself for such audience manipulation? It worked!

What mattered most was that my audience got the right messages on the topic of safety and survival. Even the most attention-grabbing suggestions were linked to that core purpose.

But I knew you couldn’t kick the shark too far.

The shark was a wake-up call in an otherwise straight presentation. I also mentioned bagging vomit instead of up-chucking overboard (this is also a real thing as vomit attracts sharks) but I kept these tidbits to a minimum.

I carefully measured these doses of dark humour because there is a fine line between getting an audiences’ attention, and making a mockery of something serious.

I would argue that some airlines have gone too far with novelty inflight safety videos.

I have embraced the safety video trend for a while, even lauded it, but there is a difference between videos which keep the safety message at their core, while making the setting and tone engaging, and the ones repeatedly jumping the shark.

Sharks on a Plane

For those unfamiliar with the expression, “jumping the shark” refers to dragging entertainment out long after it has reached its peak audience engagement. It is the content line between clever and trite.


More specifically, it refers to the moment when the show Happy Days went from a beloved, nostalgic reminder of lost youth to a sloppy mess.

As it crossed the line from tuned-in to its audience to tuned-out by the audience, Fonzie was written into an episode in which he jumped over sharks on water skis.

Why? We don’t know! It was just so..weird..and sad. The writers were tired of the story. They’d lost the plot. They tossed a salad of nonsense to keep a desperate hold on a fading audience. It did more harm than good.

Sound familiar?

Safety First

Airline competition is fierce and there are always sharks in the water. But if the objective is to gain attention for the brand, then it takes more creativity.

Like Fonzie on skis, safety videos threaten to have the opposite effect from the one desired.

Rather than tune-in to safety videos because they’re different and engaging, passengers might tune them out because, “Lord, not another one,” and “I’ve already seen it on YouTube, so I’m all set to fly now.”

The first objective of safety videos should be to prepare passengers for the highly unlikely event that they are forced to open that exit row door, crawl through a cabin full of smoke, don their lifejacket, jump off a slide, find themselves standing on an aircraft wing waiting for rescue, or sit in a life raft debating who is in charge, whose vomit bag is taking up too much space, and whether they’ve adequately marked their location with sea dye (also a real thing) so that aircraft flying overhead can spot them.

There is a lot to cover in aviation safety which doesn’t even make it to the in-flight video. Otherwise videos would be very long and would frighten passengers unnecessarily. People are already nervous flyers–even those who say they are not. We want to inform the audience without alarming them.

But we must inform them.

Cabin crew have to carry-out these duties and enforce the related rules. Transforming their heavy responsibilities into a never-ending series of novelty marketing stunts minimises the value of the message.

Let us consider the effectiveness of these videos over the past few years, since they’ve become popularised to the point of audience exhaustion.

Are passengers more likely to don their seatbelt so they can avoid turbulence injuries now that we have these clever ways to get their attention?

Have passengers followed even the most basic instructions on aircraft evacuations–leave everything behind?

Are there any studies proving a correlation between audience engagement gains and safety procedure adherence? 

Actually, CASA, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority of Australia, did a wonderful job examining this question back in 2013.

At the time, the safety videos craze was only taking-off (appropriate pun, I’d say). The videos reviewed– some more amusing than others–all put the core safety message first.

But CASA recommended further study. The results were somewhat mixed. While there was some improved appreciation for the safety message, the level of humour or novelty in a video had no significant impact on passengers’ retention of the safety message.

Message retention is improved in “an atmosphere or environment that induces positive moods,” the study states.

But that could be accomplished in many ways–and it’s entirely unrelated to the viral popularity of videos on-line.

What if we merged Marketing and..Safety?

That is what airlines have done. Right? We all know this. And it’s not a bad thing.

A reputation for safety is important to an airline’s brand, and engagement with the safety message is also important.

The well-crafted storytelling safety video accomplishes these goals.

Air New Zealand perfected the formula: set the vital instructions against an eye-catching background story which doesn’t generate a lot of distracting noise.

Some airlines have stuck to that formula in different ways, and been effective. They’ve proven that branded airline safety videos can be done properly.

Take KLM: highlighting Dutch culture, while crafting a beautiful video which transmits the safety message quite clearly.

Or Icelandair: using the beautiful otherworldly backdrop of Iceland’s natural marvels to communicate vital in-flight safety instructions.

Or Air New Zealand: Promoting destinations and travel activities with Surfing Safary, while staying on-point.

Pegasus Airlines did a great job of engaging children onboard, while ensuring audiences of all ages got the vital safety instructions.

And, released today, Qantas Airlines has got it right by borrowing from Icelandair and Air New Zealand to combine destination marketing with a well-focused safety message.

There are other examples. But here’s what all of these, and others which get it right, have in common: while they hope to engage they’re not expressly designed to go viral.

They hope to grab an in-flight audience’s attention first. They might appreciate a bit of online viral popularity (who doesn’t?) but these videos were designed to appeal as safety instructions, not to appeal as memes. That is a critical nuance.

Sharks Have to Keep Swimming

The trouble when working with sharks is that sharks can’t stand still. They have to swim constantly or they die.

The same is true of memes and other cultural references. They are ever shifting, ever changing. Safety instructions are not.

Safety is not a novelty item. 


Forcing the safety video storyline to communicate a fixed and critical message against a backdrop of fleeting cultural references, or online inside jokes, to make the videos go viral makes the utility of the videos short lived, and confuses those many passengers who don’t follow these trends closely.

Worse still, it trivialises the message.

I have yet to run across a meme which drives home a serious life-altering truth.

Perhaps I’m not as tuned-in as I should be. Maybe the internet is full of solid story-telling, socially beneficial memes, and I just haven’t seen them. But I have noticed that even well-intentioned or harmless memes quickly generate a strong audience backlash. People tire of novelties.

Survival is serious and life-altering, by definition.

Making safety instructions more palatable, more engaging, is a worthwhile endeavour.

Letting marketing drive the storytelling process to the point where the safety message is diluted is counter-effective. 

Airlines which want to marry marketing with safety need to review a successful safety video storytelling formula.

1) Put instructions clearly in the foreground. Stick to a consistent safety-procedure format. Every item on the safety instruction checklist should be communicated in a manner which avoids confusion.

2) Make tone and setting the attention-grabbers. (Less is more.)

3) Know the limits of sharks, and don’t go out of your way to swim with them.

Otherwise, airlines risk accomplishing neither their marketing goals nor improved passenger understanding and retention of airline safety procedures.

And that’s when the shark has us for lunch.

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