I’m in a cramped seat on a flight to Seattle, and I’m staring at an ad for Aculife Therapist, a device that invigorates acupuncture points. Stimulate the side of your forefinger and you can alleviate insomnia! The heel of the hand: hemorrhoids! I turn the page and find a canine genealogy kit. Then an autographed poster of Sigourney Weaver as her Na’vi avatar. Then a No! No! acne zapper. Once again I have fallen under the spell of SkyMall.
If you have been on a commercial airline and have two working eyeballs, you’ve likely been mesmerized by this curio cabinet of oddities. Only here will you find video- recording sunglasses and, a few pages later, a Daredevil Puppy Pilot Whirligig; when the wind hits it, “the propeller spins and the daredevil pooch bobs up and down.” SkyMall has everything you didn’t know that you didn’t need.
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the catalog has become an American classic, something warm and comfortable (and sometimes disturbing) to read while crammed next to coughing strangers. Nothing says modern travel more than a cocktail, half an Ambien, and the SkyMall catalog. “Being an airline passenger is one of the few occasions you can take a breath,” says Christine Aguilera, president of SkyMall, which is headquartered in Phoenix. “You don’t have to answer the phone, there are no kids to tend to, you have this precious downtime.” Downtime to explore the untapped desires in your consumer soul for bed tucker-inners and bug vacuums.
The catalog is arranged in a hodgepodge under the banners of its retailers, each with its own, deeply strange bent. Improvements, for example, offers products perfect for your next middle-class suburban pool orgy (smiling solar tiki torches and an underwater light-show device), while Design Toscano specializes in childishly crass yard art just right for the overblown estate of a 24-year-old Internet mogul—chairs in the shape of giant bloated crabs and the half-buried Zombie of Montclaire Moors garden statue, which “brings the flesh-hungry undead to your daffodil bed!” Indeed, the catalog’s random, oceanic quality may be its greatest strength: It keeps the eye moving and stimulated, like driving down a busy highway lined with strip malls.
The quarterly catalog was launched with Eastern Air Lines in 1990. Now it’s on nearly every domestic carrier (exceptions include JetBlue and Virgin America) as well as Amtrak. In its early days, the company offered more mainstream products distributed on the duty-free model: You could call from the airplane, and SkyMall would deliver the product once you’d disembarked. This proved to be less than efficient. “Consumers didn’t really want patio furniture delivered to meet them at the airport,” Aguilera notes. Much like an ever-expanding bazaar, SkyMall added more and more merchandise to its offerings. Classic top sellers like the Turkish bathrobe and a trouser organizer were augmented by the remote control LED candles and the Capacious Portable Hammock.