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Why United Airlines is rolling out a rebooted safety video

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Before any flight takes off, frequent flyers can notice their fellow passengers reading, playing video games, staring into their phones - just about anything except watching the onboard safety video. One airline hopes to get travelers' attention, and NPR's Joel Rose got a preview.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: On a sound stage in Montreal, Canada, the cast and crew of United's new safety video are at the mercy of a little blue ball.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: On it up (ph). On it - standby. And turbines...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The ball...

ROSE: It's about the size of a billiard ball. And it rolls, bounces and floats its way through a Rube Goldberg machine - a complicated chain reaction, leading the viewer from scene to scene.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And three, two, one.

ROSE: This is live action, not CGI, and the little blue ball doesn't always cooperate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, I'm in. Let's reset.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Reset.

ROSE: United hopes the payoff for all these long days on set will be worth it. Airlines are constantly fighting for the attention of their passengers, trying to get them to focus on the safety video that's required before every commercial flight thousands of times a day, every day of the year.

MEG MITCHELL: The safest safety video is one that people will want to watch even on your, like, 45th viewing.

ROSE: Meg Mitchell is the creative director at United. She says the Rube Goldberg machine is supposed to make the video visually interesting, even for frequent flyers.

MITCHELL: People start to tune out. And so we want something that felt like you could watch over and over and over again and still want to pay attention to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And we appreciate your attention as we get this safety video off and rolling.

ROSE: For a while, onboard safety videos became sort of an arms race between airlines to see who could come up with the funniest, weirdest, most viral video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: For the 0.0001% of you who have never operated a seat belt before, it works like this.

ROSE: The trend took off with Virgin America, who introduced a dryly humorous animated video in 2007, and arguably peaked in 2014 with an elaborate Air New Zealand production starring cast members of "The Hobbit." It's been watched more than 24 million times on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYLVESTER MCCOY: Oxygen is precious to you beyond measure. So if an oxygen mask should drop down from above...

ROSE: But not everyone is a fan. Critics worry that humor may unintentionally distract passengers, who tend to remember the jokes but not the actual safety message.

BRETT MOLESWORTH: In other words, it's too cognitively taxing, and then retention of information decreases.

ROSE: Brett Molesworth teaches aviation safety at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Molesworth has studied how much information passengers retain from safety videos. And he says the shift toward longer, more elaborate concepts may be counterproductive.

MOLESWORTH: When you start introducing a storyline or some type of marketing, advertising, you're only going to adversely affect the retention of information.

ROSE: All this seems to leave airlines in a bind. They need to grab your attention. But at the same time, they don't want the video to distract passengers from the safety message. That's not an easy trick to pull off. But United's vice president for safety, Sasha Johnson, says it's doable.

SASHA JOHNSON: I'm very proud of the video that we've put forward. I think it does strike the right balance between getting people to pay attention but also delivering that information fresh every single time so they can be prepared.

ROSE: Most of the shooting for United's video happened in October and November. A few months later, a Japan Airlines jet burst into flames after colliding with another aircraft on a runway in Tokyo. Remarkably, all of the passengers evacuated safely, leaving their carry-on bags behind, one more reminder of why these onboard safety videos matter.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.