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The wit and the wisdom of video

In-flight safety videos are usually the cue for frequent fliers to settle down and sleep, but two years ago one airline made its passengers sit up and listen. All it took was one ring to rule them all – plus more than 150 make up prosthetics, countless costumes and digital effects wizardry that have more place in the cinema than on a tiny plane screen.

Air New Zealand, the self-titled ‘official airline of Middle Earth’, capitalised on the success of the Lord of the Rings franchise, which was filmed there, by dressing its air hostesses as elves and referring to children and hobbits alike when talking about their ‘littlest passengers’. The film even featured Frodo Baggins himself, Elijah Wood, whilst director Peter Jackson also made a brief appearance.

Proving that it doesn’t do things by half(lings), the airline’s safety film, known as The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made, reached huge numbers on the ground too. It received 16 million views on YouTube alone, or roughly four times the population of New Zealand.

It was not the first time the airline had used humour in its safety message. Previous videos starred the rugby All Blacks, rapping the safety briefing to the tune of Men in Black, whilst American comedian Betty White, notable for her role on sitcom The Golden Girls, and adventurer Bear Grylls have also featured in air safety videos.

Humour needs to enhance the message, humour shouldn’t become the message

Taken together, Air New Zealand’s safety videos have received more than 83 million views, which is more than five times the amount of passengers carried by the airline last year. But in August, New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority said Cut. It sent an email, obtained by the media, criticising Air New Zealand’s videos for diverging from the safety message, regardless of their fame and shareability. The email said: ‘As we have commented previously, the video diverges materially from the ‘safety message’ at times, and whilst I appreciate the need to engage the viewers, the extraneous material detracts from the scope and direction of the safety message.’

Air New Zealand told news outlets that a member of their safety team attends every safety video shoot to ensure the necessary safety messages are communicated clearly. But with the message not clear enough for its regulators, its use of humour has left many divided.

Dagmar Mackett, director of video at integrated communications agency drp, says that Air New Zealand’s biggest problem was letting humour become the message. ‘When the creative takes over the message, it’s completely counter-productive,’ she says. ‘Humour needs to enhance the message, humour shouldn’t become the message.’

Mackett urges companies to be cautious with their use of humour in corporate videos. ‘With corporate video, humour does stick but companies can get it wrong. Humour is harder to do. Corporate videos are not just there to entertain.’ But that is not to say humour doesn’t have its place. ‘There are a number of examples where it has worked. It can be very effective at holding a mirror up to the audience,’ she adds.

Property company JLL has used humour in videos for internal communications. Its diversity campaign #icantbelieveisaidthat picked up the ‘Best use of humour’ trophy at this year’s CorpComms DigiAwards. ‘There has to be a grain of truth in what you’re doing. People should be able to recognise themselves in it,’ says Misa von Tunzelman, lead director of marketing and communications at JLL.

The campaign is aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion across JLL’s UK business and comprised a series of short comedy films addressing racism, ageism, gender stereotyping, homophobia and mental health filmed in the mockumentary style of comedy classics like The Office. The films featured both JLL staff and professional actors.  The campaign was sent to employees individually and asked them to send it on, instead of simply being posted on the Intranet.

Collectively, the six videos achieved more than 12,500 views. ‘In any corporate communications, it’s hard to cut through the noise, but people are more likely to open something sent to them by their friends,’ says von Tunzelman. ‘We got much higher engagement than anything we’ve done previously – it is our highest viewed content.’ The topics were not themselves humorous, however.

Diversity is something that JLL takes very seriously. ‘It’s not something people feel negatively about but we have to be careful about preaching to people. We want to talk about it without turning it into a training session or tick box exercise,’ asserts von Tunzelman. ‘We are trying to get a message across about inclusion, to explain how little changes can have a positive impact.’

Working with partners Funny Women and Odd Man Out, JLL sought to make the videos as relatable as possible, showing that everyone makes mistakes whilst empowering employees to feel comfortable about calling people out. They even included little touches to make the videos specific to JLL, such as references to the conference room touch screens, which are ‘notoriously difficult to use’.

‘Some scripts were based on fact. Funny Women did a lot of work trying to get the characters right and real,’ explains von Tunzelman. ‘We worked hard to make the characters likeable. We had to be able to recognise ourselves in them.’

The videos are also being used to attract future talent. They have been used as part of JLL’s graduate induction programmes. Attendees even reported that they didn’t expect the company to be quite so informal. ‘It’s part of becoming a 21st Century place to work, making it a bit more informal and making sure we’re still relevant, becoming a more vibrant place to be – it’s part of a package,’ says von Tunzelman.

But most importantly, the campaign worked.

While it was a cultural project, making it difficult to measure, von Tunzelman says anecdotally it has had a large impact and that the company is seeing an increase in conversations about diversity and inclusion, as well as rise in people asking advice about how to handle difficult situations. Humour, it seems, has hit home. ‘To bring humour in can help. It can be surprising, it can deliver analogies and make complex topics more palatable and easier to identify with,’ adds Mackett.

Another organisation that has found similar success using humour is charity WaterAid. It has created a number of videos which have their basis in humour, such as a series looking at what would happen if men had periods, including a fake advert for manpons, and a video titled Help them do their business, in which an office decides to cut back and build its own toilets, having rented their previous ones to an Internet start-up.

With taboo subjects, there are two ways to go: shock or humour. Shock has limited use. There’s a real danger that people disengage. Humour is culturally more accessible

‘Some of you may contract a fatal disease due to bad sanitation, but we’re having cutbacks anyway so it’ll be like killing two birds with one stone,’ says the office manager in the video. ‘It will be extra work but one third of the world lives like this, so there are bound to be some… positives.’ All videos are punctuated with a stark reminder at the end, often a statistic such as One third of the world live without access to a proper toilet.

The repercussions are deadly. ‘We didn’t want to do a complete swing to seriousness – the sudden change can be clunky,’ says Fiona Callister, head of media at WaterAid. ‘It’s difficult to do well. The starkness of a statistic at the end worked enough that people were pulled up.’ The decision to use humour in this case came from WaterAid’s rather delicate subject matter. ‘I think WaterAid is comfortable with using humour. We have to talk about toilets quite a lot,’ explains Callister. ‘With taboo subjects, there are two ways to go: shock or humour. Shock has limited use. There’s a real danger that people disengage. Humour is culturally more accessible. It helps defences fall down at bit.’ Breaking taboos is a necessary exercise in WaterAid’s line of work.

The If men had periods series was dedicated entirely to breaking down the taboo of talking freely about menstruation. Men are shown to be boasting about being on their periods next to the office watercooler, whilst the male tampon (manpon) advert sounds more like a slick razor advert than the ones for the average sanitary product. ‘We didn’t want it to be boring or negative,’ states Callister. ‘[We wanted it to show that] if men had periods, periods wouldn’t be taboo. It’s a ridiculous taboo stopping decision makers looking at the provision of toilets and girls asking for them.’

Humour travels, too. The video gained more than two million views, and while Callister and her team expected it do well in the UK, it also performed well in other countries such as India. ‘We used media coverage to drive people to the video. It’s easier to get to news outlets to cover it if we use humour.’ So what should companies consider when they are thinking about using humour in their corporate videos? ‘Humour is very personal. It’s a matter of taste. Companies have to think about it very carefully,’ says Mackett. ‘It depends on the topic, the subject matter. Is it appropriate? Is it harmful?’ ‘The hardest job in comedy is to hide the contrivance,’ says

Our in-flight safety videos are now world famous and we know people anticipate their release

Paul Gowers, founder of corporate film agency Buddy Films. ‘That’s why it doesn’t suit every brief.’ He also notes that to be funny, videos sometimes have to be negative and that companies often shy away from that in their corporate output. But if they are willing to risk it, humour can have genuine value. ‘When you’re dealing with a cynical audience, humour is the way to subvert that. Humour for brands is a way of making something warm, a way of making people like a brand.’

And when it comes to training videos in particular, production company Video Arts quotes its co-founder John Cleese, saying ‘people learn nothing when they’re asleep and very little when they’re bored’.

So perhaps Air New Zealand is not far off in its messaging strategy after all. In fact, its latest video, which features New Zealand-born comedian Rhys Darby convincing actress Anna Faris to take a role in the safety videos, whilst following her through multiple film genres, shows that the airline has yet to be put off using humour at all.

‘Our in-flight safety videos are now world famous and we know people anticipate their release,’ says head of brand Jodi Williams. ‘The interest in them has been phenomenal and collectively they’ve attracted more than 83 million views online and featured in international news outlets like CNN, BBC, and The Daily Mail. This latest video will again draw eyeballs to New Zealand from around the globe and encourage visitors to travel to our wonderful country.’

So the impact of using humour in terms of media coverage at least is clear. But companies should be aware that the message always comes before humour. If it doesn’t, you risk losing it entirely.

This article first appeared in issue 110