How a Federally-Regulated Safety Message Distinguished a Brand

If you’ve flown Virgin America, you’ve seen its distinctive safety video. But what’s the story behind it?

Feedloader (Clickability)

Until this morning, I had never listened to the soundtrack of Virgin America‘s safety video outside of aircraft captivity. When the YouTube clip began to play in my office, I was aware of how strongly my brain connects that music with the specific experience of flying Virgin. It’s relaxing yet night-clubby; Muzakesque but cooler. Or, as my officemate put it, “It makes you want to break into yoga.”

Virgin America still doesn’t offer in-flight yoga classes (though in their early days, I think I recall a light instructional for in-seat poses on the interactive entertainment system), but their other amenities certainly cater to a yoga-loving young professional set. It’s the aspirational hipster’s airline, and they have the safety video to prove it.

If you’ve flown Virgin America, you’ve seen the video—it’s been running since the airline’s launch in 2007. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it below. It’s a hand-illustrated, animated short starring fanciful and often non-human characters, like a matador and his bull, and a many-armed nun. Most people are both surprised and charmed by their first encounter with the video. While it’s a clear ploy to get passengers to tune in to something they’ve been tuning out for years, it’s a clever, well-executed ploy, which viewers reward with their attention.

Of all the bells and whistles Virgin America installed to distinguish their brand from its competitors, this safety shpiel is one of the most distinct, unique aspects of the flight experience—which is something of a feat, since the message that must be conveyed through the video is strictly regulated by numerous federal agencies. But Virgin America did an ace job of turning a PSA into entertainment, and other airlines have followed suit, redesigning their safety videos to be more sexy, more funny, and generally less robotic.

“You don’t get to mess with the script too much—it’s about saving people’s lives,” says Gordon P. Clark, who is both the artist and the voice behind the Virgin America video (“They threw out some big names for the voiceover, but they ended up using my voice because I’m a bargain,” he says). Clark has worked in animation design for over two decades, and while landing the gig as Virgin America’s safety communicator didn’t fundamentally change his career, he says he’s received loads of attention for it. The secondary benefit of making this captive audience focus on the safety message is that they also focus on the art itself.

Clark was hired by an agency called Anomaly, which worked with Virgin America on their branding and communications strategy from 2004-2007. “It was one of those cases where everyone that was capable in the studio came up with different ideas,” Clark recalls, “and mine was just this one based on doodles and a design that was supposed to look sort of naive and organic and not be consistent like animation normally is—the kind of inconsistent design like you’d do while you’re on the phone.”

Because the approval process for a message of this kind moves glacially slow, Clark and his animation team had time to add and experiment with details and nuance.  ”We tried to interject subtle visual humor without distracting or confusing people,” he says, which meant hitting quite a few dead ends when something that seemed harmless was deemed potentially open to misinterpretation by passengers—at one point, the life-vest scene included someone in the background putting on the vest entirely wrong, but it was cut for fear someone might interpret it literally.

This level of caution extended to the characters in the video. “We used as many animals and non-humans as we could, but they said if it’s an animal that could actually be on board, like a dog, we couldn’t use it.” Hence, the cyclops-fish and the giant bull. In keeping with his desire for randomness and the feel of idle doodling, Clark enlisted two other illustrator-animators, Nick Hewitt and Mike Overbeck, to add their personal styles to the mix. The result is a cast of characters at least as quirky and varied as the real human array one sees when flying.

Clark now works at Lucasfilm as an animator for Clone Wars, the 3D CGI television series based on Star Wars, but he still calls the Virgin America video his most “high-profile job.” Indeed, both his visual personality and his voice are now pretty well baked into the DNA of an airline that is, in many ways, shaping the future of the in-flight experience—or at very least, setting the bar for creative approaches to meeting federal requirements.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.