Air Canada’s safety video is an ‘Ode to Canada’

Air Canada has launched its first safety video in nearly eight years, during which time they have evolved from being a pedestrian (and frankly boring) explanation of in-aircraft safety procedures to a frequently entertaining extension of the brand itself.

Originally completed in 2019, only to be shelved because of the pandemic, “Ode to Canada” is a nearly six-minute video that is part travelogue and part reminder to keep your seat-back in an upright position and tray table stowed in preparation for takeoff. It is the first time Air Canada has presented a safety video set outside of one of its aircraft cabins.

John Xydous, director of brand strategy and content marketing with Air Canada in Montreal, said the video represents a “pretty big shift” for the airline. Like many carriers, it had long employed a relatively strait-laced approach to its in-flight safety videos—smiling passengers dutifully following instructions to stow their carry-on baggage under the seat and switch their mobile device to airplane mode.

Directed by Kevin Foley of Toronto-based Scouts Honour, the video contains footage from every Canadian province and territory. It presents people following aircraft safety protocols with Canada’s mountains, oceans, and cities serving as a backdrop: People practicing yoga on the Prince Edward Island coastline demonstrate how to brace yourself in the event of an emergency, while a Nova Scotia lobsterman demonstrates how to inflate a life vest.

“It just felt right as Canada’s airline for the first attempt [at a revamped safety video] to be a tribute to Canada,” said Xydous. “We wanted to show what makes Canada unique, and what makes it unique in the east is a little different in the west and the north. We wanted to capture the character of the provinces and territories and how they build Canada’s overall personality.”

The video is very much in keeping with consumers’ desire to be entertained, whether they’re sitting on their couch at home or in an airplane seat in coach with an annoying seat-mate and not enough leg room. “Safety is still the priority for sure, and we want to make sure that’s getting across,” said Xydous. “But we’ve been seeing a shift in videos that are now not only sharing instructions, they’re also entertaining.”

Safety videos have become an intriguing subset of airline advertising in recent years, with carriers around the world developing highly produced and buzzy videos. Qatar Airways once staged a video at an F.C. Barcelona soccer match, for example, while Israel’s El Al created a cheesy music-themed video that seems to combine elements of Blue Man Group and Robert Palmer’s famous “Addicted to Love” video.

Even relatively staid carriers like British Airways have got into the game, enlisting capital-A actors like Sirs Michael Caine and Ian McKellen, as well as non-knighted stars like The Trip‘s Rob Brydon and Rowan “Mr Bean” Atkinson to appear in its videos.

For some, these videos have become a key component of consumer outreach through a combination of word of mouth and extensive media coverage. Air New Zealand, for example, has released more than a dozen videos over the past decade or so, enlisting celebrities including fitness guru Richard Simmons and Betty White.

The Antipodean airline has created themed videos around movies like Men in Black as well as a Hobbit-themed video starring Elijah Wood and director Peter Jackson to coincide with the third instalment of the film series.

The videos routinely garner millions of views on YouTube (2014’s Hobbit themed “The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made,” has more than 22 million views), and have helped the airline gain massive exposure through word of mouth in a sector in which its larger competitors outspend it on traditional advertising by a reported 10-to-1 margin.

“Our safety videos have proven to be a hugely effective marketing tool and we continue to be amazed with the reactions they garner,” the airline’s then general manager of global brand and content marketing, Jodi Williams, told Bloomberg in 2017.

According to that report, it was the unexpected viral success of an otherwise unremarkable 2008 Delta Airlines safety video that served as a catalyst for the evolution of safety videos. Presenter (and actual Delta employee) Katherine Lee’s finger-wagging “no smoking” gesture quickly became a YouTube sensation, and led to articles in major daily newspapers.

The video’s success was a revelation for the airline industry, which “began to see how safety videos could be used to increase brand visibility,” said Bloomberg. “In the ensuing years, airlines have pulled out nearly every gimmick imaginable to make their safety video a YouTube sensation.”

“It’s become a very creative space,” said Xydous. “Some airlines do things that are very tongue-in-cheek, and others have really inspirational messages. I can see a place for all of them, but for us it was important for our first video out of the gate to really be a tribute to Canada.”

The video is very much aligned with Air Canada’s brand image, eschewing humour and silliness in favour of earnestness and letting Canada’s natural beauty—from the wheat fields of Saskatchewan, to the seaside cliffs of Newfoundland & Labrador’s Gros Morne National Park— do the talking.

While the video is designed to deliver a more engaging onboard experience for its customers, it has also been positively received on Air Canada’s social channels. The YouTube version has amassed more than 25,000 views since debuting on June 23, and even the notoriously toxic comments section is filled with praise.

“It’s the kind of reaction you hope to get from a brand spot,” said Xydous. “It’s not necessarily [an attempt] to build the brand through a safety video, but the reaction is for sure a win for the brand side of the business.”

But Xydous says it’s important for the videos to strike the right balance between being entertaining and informational. “If people are paying more attention to it because it’s entertaining, it’s a win because you’re able to better communicate your safety instructions,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s not this thing that people feel they have to [begrudgingly] sit through.”

The video comes as the airlines begin to slowly re-open routes after the travel industry was crippled by Covid. “It’s a good piece for us to be rebooting travel and getting back out there,” said Xydous. “It just felt like the right moment to be launching this and celebrating returning to travel. It feels like we’re turning the corner.”

The safety video was added to some Air Canada aircraft this week, with the full rollout expected to be complete across the entire fleet by July 1.

Xydou acknowledged that the more than seven-year interlude between videos was too much, and said he hopes to begin rolling them out on more frequent basis. “We’re viewing them almost as an additional channel for us to speak to our consumers,” he said.

Some airlines have wrapped their safety videos around events or sponsorships, and Air Canada’s status as a Canadian Olympic Committee sponsor could provide a potential avenue of exploration, said Xydous. “We won’t be doing it for these Games…but four years from now I could see us considering the safety video as part of our storytelling,” he said.

Chris Powell