IT HAS been a familiar routine for decades: you find your seat on a plane, strap in and make yourself comfortable, and just as you are settling down with latest issue of The Economist, you are interrupted by a safety announcement.

Most people who fly regularly find it easy to tune out the instructions on how to buckle a seatbelt and inflate a life jacket. But in recent years, they have become a lot harder to ignore. That’s because the safety videos have become entrancingly, maddeningly catchy.

When—and how, and why—did this begin? It may feel like an overnight development, but the phenomenon is nearly a decade in the making. Virgin America is widely credited with launching the genre of entertaining safety videos, with a crudely animated effort in 2007. It marked a significant departure from the boilerplate videos that preceded it, but by today’s standards it’s still something of a snoozer.

Air New Zealand was next. In 2009, it pioneered a new development in safety instruction: videos that...Continue reading