Instagram Has Become SkyMall

The ads are a nonstop slurry of surreal products, and I love it

Clive Thompson
Debugger
Published in
6 min readJul 9, 2021

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If you flew during the 90s and 00s, you probably remember SkyMall. It was a catalogue of completely loony products — often high-tech gadgets of dubious promise, such as “a vacuum cleaner to catch flies, an alien butler drink tray, a helmet that promises to regrow your hair using lasers.” Here’s that head laser …

Very often the products existed to solve a problem that wasn’t remotely a problem, like “hey, do you ever find it a huge hassle to pour cereal from a box?

The thing is, SkyMall was a blast. It was so consistently unhinged — night-glow toilet seat! seabreacher customized boat! wine-glass-holder necklace! — that I began to look forward to thumbing through the catalogue while nursing a plastic tumbler of scotch. It was the high point of my flight.

Back then, I was somewhat baffled that anyone bought this crap. In retrospect, I can see that air travel — where people are sealed in a tube, hurtling through the sky, and trying to ignore the near-intimate contact of strangers — has a faintly Freudian quality that’s probably psychologically well-torqued for surrealist impulse-buying. (SkyMall’s top-selling item ever? A “hand-painted designer resin Yeti statue.”)

Alas, SkyMall filed for bankruptcy in 2015, and while it lives on as a crepuscular online store, the paper catalogue has long vanished. (You can listen to a wonderful Jonathan Coulton song about SkyMall, though.) For years, I’ve wistfully hoped for someone to proffer an equally unhinged landscape of useless products. But no retailer possessed the same alchemical combo of P.T. Barnum shamelessness and bizarro technological provenance.

Until, of course, Instagram ads.

I can’t say precisely when my Instagram ads began to tip over into SkyMall territory. I’d been noticing the devolution for months, maybe years. But these days when…

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Clive Thompson
Debugger

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net