Making a song and dance about safety

In this age of the frequent flyer, where we’re all constantly zipping off to Ljubljana for stag dos or popping to Barcelona for long, tapas-soaked weekends, it’s become deeply uncool to pay any attention whatsoever to the in-flight safety instructions. Lift your gaze from your Kindle even momentarily and you might as well buy a uniformed teddy bear and king-sized Toblerone and have done with it [Hey, what’s wrong with Toblerone? – Ed].

The airlines must be sick of people’s heads bent over ‘electronic devices’ while they point out the exits. So they’re coming up with ever-more elaborate twists on their safety videos to grab their passengers’ attention.

First we had Air New Zealand’s Lord Of The Rings-themed epic. Now Virgin America have gotten in on the act with this Glee-style musical extravaganza. They’ve got dancing air hostesses! A singing nun! Kids doing comedy raps! There’s even a Daft Punk-style robot breakdown (my favourite bit).

It must have cost them a bomb. And they’ve clearly put a lot of work into the script; their wonderfully cheeky translations of standard airline lingo are pure Virgin.

‘If your vest doesn’t fill, honey, no big deal
Blow into the red tube and you’ve got a refill.’

Genius. And what better way to get people to ‘remain seated’ than this:

‘So won’t you buckle your seatbelt, put it on tight
And keep your (whoo) in that chair until we turn off that light.’

Brilliant stuff. Except. Except.

Every now and then there’s a spoken bit – presumably to make sure people take in the really important instructions amongst all the jazz hands and frou-frou. And what do we see there? Passive sentences. Formal words.

‘Seatbelts should be fastened whenever you’re seated.’
‘Personal electronic devices should be turned off and properly stowed.’
‘FAA regulations require that all guests comply with the lighted information signs, posted placards and instruction of the in-flight team.’

I mean, what in the name of Cee-Lo is a ‘posted placard’? Who uses the word ‘stowed’ in normal conversation? Who are the FAA and why are they getting all Robocop on our asses?

My biggest objection to this kind of language is that it’s so unclear – especially to non-native English speakers who, it stands to reason, you’re more than likely to find on planes.

Yes, there are things airlines have to say by law. But as far as we can tell, the federal regulations only tell the airlines what messages they have to give passengers – they don’t specify any actual wording. So as long as they get the content right, they can theoretically do what they like with the tone.

Virgin are already inviting people to audition for their next safety video. I hope they look at all the words next time: the boring legal bits as well as the tongue-in-cheek song lyrics.

Because our research shows that what really makes people switch off is fusty, passive, formal language. And all the song and dance in the world ain’t gonna change that.

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