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800 Words

Sky's the Limit

September 10, 2006|Dan Neil

I hate to admit it, but I really do need a solar-powered mole repeller.

This wasn't the first thought I had when I got up this morning-- damn moles, the way they lounge around in the sun all day, who do they think they are?--but now it seems clear that my material world is not complete without said mole repeller. I've discovered a need I never knew I had. I've had the Sky Mall experience.

Ever since the U.S. Transportation Security Administration banned carrying liquids on planes, airports have seen a 20% increase in checked baggage, and I've noticed on the last two planes I was on that a lot of passengers, weary of getting frisked and shaken down at the metal detectors, have given up. More people seem to be striding toward the gate without any hand luggage at all--no computer bag, no backpack, no purse.

Even terrorism has its upside. The last security line I was in moved expeditiously, and when I got to the plane there were acres of storage in the overhead bins.

The trouble is that when you finally do get buckled in, you have nothing to do--unless you're flying JetBlue, which gives even the poor schlubs in coach video to watch. How long, after all, does it take to dispatch a typical in-flight magazine? Then you're left with the literature of last resort: the Sky Mall catalog, a quarterly collection of electronics, specialty gifts, household inventions and, well, the indescribable. Would you really describe a coffee-table aquarium as home decor?

Sky Mall is an extraordinary document. In the annals of merchandising, few catalogs have the reach--1.8 million pairs of eyeballs, desperate for diversion, each day, the publisher says--and none that I can think of has what might be called the soak time. There are no audiences more captive than those incarcerated on a plane. Eighty-eight percent of domestic flights have Sky Mall catalogs on board (in the seat backs, right behind the complimentary barf bag). The catalog rakes in more than $100 million annually.

Christine Aguilera, president of the Phoenix-based company, understands the relationship between security and her readership: "The fewer things people can do on a plane, the more interested they are in the airline amenities, which include Sky Mall," she says.

And so, deprived of my usual carry-on, I arrived at what is surely a universal moment for air travelers: flipping through the glossy pages--remote control toy shark, laser-guided pool cue and, of course, the comically dangerous lawn aerator sandals--wondering: Who the hell buys this junk? Honestly, your Maslow hierarchy of needs would have to be a mile high before you could find yourself craving a dedicated bug vacuum with gel-filled "kill" cartridges. If you're considering ordering the replica of the Evenstar Pendant of Arwen ("The Lord of the Rings"), it's almost a certainty your mom drove you to the airport.

A sense of superiority comes easy, and that's part of the pleasure of Sky Mall. In the copy for a corn-dog cooker, we're advised the device can fry other things, too, like "Twinkies, Snickers bars." Just be sure not to burn down the trailer. And yet, I can't help admiring Sky Mall, or at least the hyper-prosperity of the society from which it arises. This cornucopia of crapola reflects a certain collective genius, and an astonishing rate of technical dissemination. Flexible rollout keyboards, wrap-around eyewear that plays iPod videos, electronic pens that translate type from other languages, fingerprint-reading door locks--all this stuff was science fiction a decade ago.

Meanwhile, neither Heinlein nor Asimov in their wildest dreams could conjure the solar-powered mole repeller (which, incidentally, sends out a pulse of vibration every 30 seconds that apparently drives moles crazy). Amid the sham--the GPS golf rangefinders, the oxygen-enriched water--there are some genuinely clever items. Back home, our tomato plants are sagging under the weight of their own fruit. How clever the upside-down tomato garden looks now.

To her credit, Aguilera is not immune to the kitsch of her enterprise. Some of her favorite wacky catalog items (now no longer offered) include the coffee table with women's stocking legs, and a recording of songs that make your dog happy. What she admires, though, is the inexhaustible creativity of inventor culture--a culture celebrated in the reality show "American Inventor," which got picked up for a second season.

"Most of the stuff in our catalog is the product of somebody who had a great idea and the drive to bring it to market," says Aguilera, who estimates only 2% to 3% of the inventions pitched to Sky Mall get accepted. In a consumerist society, invention is one of the purest expressions of pop. Wherever there is a need or desire, an archetypal myth or hope (lower your golf score!), eventually it gets digested into merchandise. The moles don't stand a chance.

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