A close reading of Skymall.

A Close Reading of SkyMall

A Close Reading of SkyMall

Scrutinizing culture.
Jan. 23 2015 11:55 AM

“Where the Wings Have No Shame”

What’s SkyMall culture really about?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Just this week the parent company of SkyMall filed for bankruptcy. In April 2007, Ron Rosenbaum wrote about SkyMall’s culture of “gadgetization.” His article is reprinted below:

I think it was the SnacDaddy® chicken-wing tray that may have done it. Convinced me there is something to be learned about America from SkyMall culture.


When I say SkyMall culture, I mean the gadget-fetishizing, techno-porn culture of the ads in airline magazines. Most of you are familiar with the ads in airline magazines, and I'm sure at one bored, tarmac-sitting moment or another you must have wondered why a certain kind of product is featured in their pages. Well, SkyMall is an airline magazine that features nothing but airline magazine ads.

Nothing but ads for such essential items as the "Readylight® Handcrank LED Flashlight." (SkyMall advertisers are big on "handcrank" items. Handcrank enthusiasts implicitly foresee a crisis in which all forms of power on the planet will fail, and you'll be able to generate light only with the help of a crank.)

Ron Rosenbaum Ron Rosenbaum

The ad for the SnacDaddy® chicken-wing array tray—headlined "Where the wings have no shame"—appears in the Late Spring '07 issue of SkyMall, which I found in the seat pocket on a Delta flight. This was just pages from an ad for "the world's largest write-on map mural," probably useful for keeping an eye on the fast-moving global catastrophe that will make your many handcrank devices the envy of your crank-deprived neighbors. And a few pages on, we find the "crank-powered walkie talkie." (The crank, handbred in Vermont, is sold separately.)

The issue also features the "upside-down tomato garden," the "remote controlled robotic hammerhead shark," the "pop-up hot dog cooker," the "million-germ-eliminating travel toothbrush sanitizer," the "window-mounted cat porch," the "world's smallest indoor remote control helicopter," the "Turbo-Groomer® COBALT" nose-hair trimmer, the "Sudoku glass tabletop set," the "Solar-powered mole repeller," (what, no handcrank in case of nuclear winter?), the "versatile mock rock in five sizes." (For those unaware of the purpose of a "mock rock"—since real ones are not in short supply—they are designed to "hide problem areas in your yard or garden.")

And then there's the fixation on watches—watches that give you as much useless time-related information as possible. The cover story of this issue of SkyMall features "Stylish, Atomic, Solar based Chronograph Watches" alongside close-ups of the dials of two giant-looking "stylish, atomic, solar-based chronograph watches." I found myself staring at the multiple gauges on the two huge dials which must convey, to the SkyMall geek, a thrill equal to that delivered by two large breasts on the cover of Penthouse.

It was chrono-porn. I found myself actually getting a little airsick staring at the still photographs of these watches, one with three dials-within-the-dial and a wavy thing that looked like a three-dimensional parabola, whose time-relatedness I didn't understand at all.

But what did occur to me is that the appeal of watches in SkyMall country has something to do with the notion of death—of your time running out.

Something to do with the fact that when one is up in the air, however familiar, on some limbic level of the brain, one is aware of how absurd it is to be suspended eight miles high in a metal container, only some poorly understood laws of physics keeping you from plunging abruptly to certain death.

In some still-not-entirely assimilated region of the limbic brain, one's time is about to run out every second, thus the attraction of all those devices that somehow contain time, tame time, break time down into tiny dials within dials—even the word dial contains the word (or, to be precise, sound) die. Consuming chrono-porn in midair seems to be a way of managing the existential anxiety—the denial of the dial—of flight.

With such reverence for time, it's no wonder you can encounter, inside SkyMall, the "most hailed watch in modern human history." Modern human history, people! That's a lot of hailing.

Gadgetization has even invaded the airline-mag category of "executive" self-improvement and motivational tools. In the ad for Successories®, "your complete source for workplace motivation, inspiration and recognition," the magazine features the "Power of Attitude Pen Holder."

Then, of course, there are solutions for problems you didn't realize were problems: "Radio controlled snack float brings food and drinks to you!" while you're relaxing on "[t]he world's most advanced self-propelled pool float!" While all the while inside your washer the "Bra Baby" is doing its thing, making sure that it's safe to wash and dry padded bras "without worry!"

I could go on: the "pre-programmed wine chiller," the "Life is a Journey" bracelet. And "the Ultimate Gear Management Solution," a "travel-vest" that has "29 hidden pockets"—the emphasis on storage management reflecting the uneasiness of the traveler always feeling out of place, with no hidden pockets to hide in. Thus, the proliferation of ingenious storage devices which give the comforting illusion that, in a larger sense, everything can be made to fit—including you.