I’ve been traveling a lot lately for work and, as a result, sitting through a lot of airline safety videos.

You know the drill: “Please remain seated with your seatbelt safely fastened any time the seatbelt sign is on… Stow your personal items in the overhead compartment… Take a moment to look around for the nearest exit…”

Back in the day, these videos earned a kind of cliché status by being completely boring no matter which airline you were using or where you were going. The content was dry and the visuals were increasingly outdated, since the airlines kept the same exact videos around for decades. Flight attendants retained their perms and high waistlines even when passengers had long since moved on.

As a professional, I didn’t think much of these videos in terms of quality, but I also just didn’t think much about them at all. Why would the airlines put any real effort in?

There was no downside to having a boring video; it was just what everyone did.

Airlines knew their passengers were most likely daydreaming through their safety presentations, anyway. Maybe when the videos were first made, or when air travel was new, passengers were interested in the emergency information. Over time, though, air travel has become a mundane part of the modern landscape and is well known to be safer than driving. Safety videos became a legal obligation, not something really worth anyone’s attention.

Or so we all thought.

Quite recently and all at once, all the airlines redid their safety videos. And they didn’t just modernize; they dumped serious amounts of cash into making some really compelling material.

British Airways got a whole crowd of popular and prestigious celebrities to read for the part:

El Al did a nice job, too, bringing in renowned mentalist Lior Suchard to work a little magic:

Now, safety videos are likely to become viral hits with, no exaggeration, millions of views. People really watch them, and not just on airplanes, either; they watch them for fun all over the internet. These videos are entertaining, creative… and a great vehicle to raise the profile of an airline.

That’s a big change.

So what happened?

There are a lot of angles to approach this question from – changes in technology, changes in marketing, changes in airline culture. Personally, I think the human element is the most interesting one.

Someone, somewhere saw an opportunity to do things differently. That’s what it all boils down to.

From what I can tell, Virgin America started it off. If you look back, they were trying to market themselves as a fun, new kind of airline at the time and, in this spirit, turned their safety presentation into a poppy music video featuring fabulous dancers and a sense of humor about the information they were obligated to impart.

“For the .001% of you who have never operated a seatbelt before… Really?” snarked the flight attendant. “I mean, it works like this…”

Suddenly it was a lot easier to take in the instructions.

The idea took off and became a trend after Air New Zealand used a Lord of the Rings reenactment as a teaching tool:

That’s a full-scale cinematic production.

The very notion of a fun and quirky safety video was a subversion of expectations. We all know what safety videos are supposed to be like, so we were all in on the joke. Soon enough, social media spread these videos to much bigger audience than they’d ever had before, attracting media attention at the same time.

Now, these first few, pioneering airlines had all the same information and the same history as everyone else. What made them different was that after years of that sameness, they were the first to ask: “But what if…?”

What if we stopped doing things the way we always have?

More specifically: What if we stop making videos that are a waste of time, and make videos that accomplish something instead?

That’s what I mean by the human element. Someone had an idea, and they weren’t afraid to run with it. It worked so well that everyone else started doing it, too, adapting it to their own needs and goals.

That kind of innovation can happen anywhere, including in the nonprofit world. When a thought leader introduces a change, especially something with the potential of video, they can move the entire industry forward in a big way.

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