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It’s Official: Airline Safety Videos Are the New Harlem Shake

You remember the Harlem Shake, right? That video meme from those halcyon days of February and March 2013, when if there wasn’t a video of you on the Internet violently gyrating while wearing a motorcycle helmet, you were failing at life?

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Yeah, that one. The Harlem Shake is one of the most explosive viral videos ever, and its meteoric (meme-eoric?) rise is an excellent lesson in both the science of viral memes and the potential influence—and thus massive gains—corporations can have on viral trends.

John Constine, in his article for TechCrunch on the science behind the Harlem Shake’s popularity, concludes his study by explaining:

“Content creators, and especially ‘viral marketers,’ would do well to structure their products around a remixable formula when possible. Give us a coloring book and we’ll give you some pretty pictures and a whole lot of attention.”

This is sound advice, and content marketers are starting to pay attention. Look no further than airline safety videos. What used to be the most frustrating part of flying has become the airline industry’s Harlem Shake, with myriad airlines finding viral gold by remixing their safety instructions.

Air New Zealand was one of the first on this trend in 2012, with a Hobbit-themed safety video that earned over 12 million views. This week, they went back to the well with a new series of Middle-Earth-themed videos, which feature cameos from the likes of Elijah Wood and Peter Jackson.

The highlight of this series is the airline safety video, which has garnered almost 8 million views in less than a week. The videos are a win-win-win for those involved: New Line Cinemas gets viral promotion for their Hobbit movies, Air New Zealand gains exposure from rabid Lord of the Rings fans, and New Zealand tourism can remind people that the real-life Middle Earth is only a flight away.

Air New Zealand has also employed the likes of Betty WhiteBear Grylls, and even Richard Simmons for their campaign. (You can never go wrong with Betty White and Richard Simmons.)

Another notable participant is Virgin Airlines, who used their own media production company, Virgin Produced, to create a viral hit with a pop music video play on pre-takeoff safety instructions.

With over 10 million views and an undeniably catchy chorus that must be the bane of Virgin flight attendants everywhere, Virgin upped the game to somehow make safety videos that people want to watch.

Other participants include Delta, whose videos are well-produced but ultimately thematic skins of regular safety videos, and Icelandair, who produced a much more subdued yet surprisingly beautiful version.

Another added wrinkle to this marketing trend is the “undercover” on-flight version of the viral safety video, made famous by Southwest Airlines. Southwest is notorious for the creative leeway they give their flight attendants during their safety briefings, and at least two versions have gone viral.

Part of the genius of Southwest’s scheme is that these videos seem entirely organic. By simply allowing their employees to be fun, Southwest planted the seeds for future exposure while promoting their company values—all without sacrificing authenticity. An overly branded video like Virgin Airlines’ would have seemed antithetical to Southwest’s neighborly brand image.

Other airlines have engineered similar guerilla-style videos, such as Cebu Pacific’s overtly sexual “safety dance” to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” Using flight attendants as sexualized props seems a bit ’50s; it’s hard to imagine a more famous airline escaping controversy with something like this.

What all these videos demonstrate, however, is the power of a strict formula with set variables. For marketers hoping to understand memes—why certain ones explode while others doesn’t—that’s a key takeaway from both the Harlem Shake and these airline safety videos.

In a way, the safety video’s normally strict, boring script is what created the conditions for memehood. Its structure is familiar to anyone who has flown, and creative parody is simply a matter of reworking the variables. Add the comedic effect of appropriating something boring that we’ve all complained about (“Do they really have to tell us how to buckle a seat belt?”) and making it entertaining, and you have yourself a content marketing winner.

Image by Air New Zealand
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