photo Pollard Lucien
BSc Industrial Design ,
University of Luton, UK.

Air Culture

Pollard Lucien

Lecturer / Researcher, BSc Industrial Design

Department of Design and Manufacturing

University of Luton


The aim of the research was to explore how the socio-cultural-economic-political context in which a air travel products are found influence their meaning. Air travel products are aimed at particular groups of air travellers and incorporate a wide ranging variety of products such as cutlery, chair designs, interior decor (including colour schemes), the presentation of food, departure and arrival facilities and the type of service provided by the airlines, amoungst others.

For the research, two specific air travel products were used as case studies, British Airways Club Class and Virgin Atlantic Upper Class. Both of these are aimed at the business class air traveller.

In order to determine the socio-cultural meaning of these two case studies, the following structure of analysis was utilised. Firstly, the `production' factors associated with the historical development of air travel products were analysed. Secondly, the `consumption' factors associated with the development of the case studies, in particular, the role of the consumer. The third area of analysis relates to the creation of meaning and, in particular, ideas derived from semiotics (the study of signs and meaning). This semiotic analysis of the creation of meaning then led to an investigation of the role of advertising in the creation of meaning and its role in mediating between production and consumption. Finally, analysis was carried out into the corporate culture of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

The significance of the system of production.

The main way in which meaning is created through the production of a product is through the use-value and exchange-value associated with it. In relation to air travel products it is usually assumed that the primary use value is to provide transportation for passengers. However, from the early inception of the airlines there have been other use values such as, economic whereby the aeroplane was viewed by the producers, in the majority of cases governments, as an important part of their economic strategy. A further use-value was technological, whereby the passenger aeroplane has been developed primarily because of its technological significance.

Technical innovation

Technical innovation in manufacturing processes and material technology has played an important role in the production of passenger aeroplanes and in turn has affected the type of air travel products available.


Many nations see the possession of a state airline as being an icon symbolising the country being part of the modern world. Airlines owned by poorer countries are a symbol of these countries' aspirations.

Economic status:

Arlines are used to convey the economic status of a country. Airlines and passenger aircraft therefore represent conventional indices in that although the aircraft does not itself contain the status but is used to indicate that status. In the same that a weather vane is used to indicate the direction of the wind.

The production of these various exchange values depends on the system of the division of labour, both technical and social. The division of labour, both technical and societal, also influences the production of air travel products. The process by which the division of labour achieves this is by being able to determine the surplus income of the work force. This in turn will influence the meaning of the products in that category.(1)

Consumption-(The consumer's experience)

McCrakken in Culture and Consumption examined the rituals used by consumers to extract meaning from consuming products. The rituals identified by McCrakken are examined below. Air travel products are used to describe the various concepts . (2)

Divestment rituals .

Divestment rituals are those in which the individual sees the product as possessing personal properties. An example of this in the airline industry is the different types of air travellers identified by the advertiser, for example the conformist, the hawk etc. (3)

Grooming rituals.

Groomiong rituals in the case of air travel products, because the length of consumption lasts often a short time, in order for the consumer to extract meaning from the product , the air travel product has to be continually consumed.

Exchange rituals.

Exchange rituals, the gifts given to the passenger by the airlines are used to reinforce the consumers' image of themselves - in the act of consuming the product the consumers acknowledge that they possess the quality which the gift represents.

Possession rituals .

Possession rituals include the giving of travel cards (BA's Blue Chip Card) to the consumer and are a means of enabling him or her to continue to possess the product even when they are not actually consuming.

The Diderot effect, defined by Diderot in the seventeenth century, as a situation where artefacts belong to particular culturally defined categories. Diderot unity provides the consumer with a means of creative consumption. The consumer in buying a product from a particular 'cultural category then has to buy other products from that category in order to achieve consistency of product compliment. The consumer can also use goods to construct an 'objective correlative ' of his or her world. Manufacturers use the Diderot effect as a means of stimulating demand and consumption of consumer goods. By persuading the consumer to purchase goods outside their present 'objective correlative ' the consumer has then to buy the other products corresponding to that cultural category.

Goods can be used to differentiate people. By manufacturers having to differentiate their products from those of their competitors, they are constantly seeking to create new cultural categories. These categories are usually based on lifestyle categorisation. Manufacturers and consumers can use goods to invoke thoughts and feelings from the past and the future. In this way the meaning of the product is displaced in that it usually represents something in the past or from an idealised future. (4) An example of this is Virgin Atlantic's use of the 'Scarlet Lady' emblem and British Airways' use of the 'coats of arms'. However, in this connection, it can also represent what the consumer aspires towards.

The role of advertising in the creation of meaning

The role played by advertising in the creation of the meaning of a product involves mediating between production and consumption. The way in which advertising does this is by trying to stimulate a desire in the consumer to consume a particular product. The process employed by the advertisers to do this involves the creation of myths.(5) Advertisers attempt to persuade the consumer that where a need did not exist before there is now one. (6)

Advertising promotes the development of new cultural categories through the process of differentiation. By differentiating one product from another, the advertisers are involved in promoting differentiation amongst consumers as well. This is because the advertisers rely on associating a product with a particular image which usually corresponds to the cultural category of consumers. Examples of this in the airline industry include British Airways' association of Club Class with the Yuppie and Virgin Upper Class with the Rebel. The other products or images (stereotypes) are used as 'semantic' codes in that they already signify something which can then be transferred to the product being advertised. By deliberately leaving an object out of an advert and therefore requiring the reader to undertake an hermeneutic interpretation, the advertisers through this process give the reader the impression that they are the ones creating the meaning. By employing this technique the advertisers are able to speak directly to the reader/consumer. Adverts like this can be said to employ the same techniques which Althusser identified as being used by society through ideology to address the individual. Althusser comments that through this process the individual is able to construct a coherent purpose and identity in the same way advertising can be said to provide the individual with the means of creating temporal identities. Baudrillard highlights this point when he comments that people in contemporary society come to classify themselves by creating their identity through images.(7)

Corporate culture, its role in determining the meaning of a product

Each culture owes its completeness and self sufficiency to the fact that it satisfies the whole range of basic needs. (8)

In analysing the culture of institutions, we would then see that in one and all we can register a certain agreement on the state of a common purpose as between the members of the movement.(9).

Corporate culture

Corporate culture plays an important role in the meaning associated with certain products. The corporate culture of a company will determine the identity of that company. This in turn will influence its product strategy.


Brands are developed by companies as a means of controlling the consumption patterns of consumers. Therefore, in trying to control the consumption patterns of consumers, the companies also try to influence the meaning derived by the consumers when consuming the specific brand. In this sense both British Airways Club Class and Virgin Atlantic Upper Class can be regarded as brands. The identities of brands are drawn from the culturally constituted world. Brands are created either to correspond to a particular cultural category or they are aimed at creating new cultural categories. Like advertising the process by which brands create new lifestyles is through a process of differentiation.


Identy is socially defined, created through a process of interaction between the corporate culture of institution and society - a process which is similar to the process through which cultures are defined.

The best description of any culture in terms of concrete reality would consist of the listing and analysis of all institutions into which that culture is organised.(10).

The identity of a company depends principally on the consumers' perception of that company. Brands are therefore a means of influencing the consumers' perception of a company. However, some companies develop brands as entities in themselves, whereby the same brand is sold in a different country under a different name. Consequently, when brands stand by themselves in this way it can be very difficult to discover who actually produces them. (11). Brands, therefore, are important factors in determining the meaning of a product.


The socio-cultural context in which a product is found helps to determine its meaning. However, it cannot be used to determine the final meaning of that particular product. Barthes (12) and Cubitt (13) point out that this is because a product gains its final meaning in the act of consumption. What an understanding of the socio-cultural context achieves is to aid the designer in understanding the mechanism by which meaning is created. This mechanism can then be used as a guideline in an attempt to understand the possible meaning a consumer will gain from consuming a particular product.


1 . Gershuny 1983, Social Innovation and the Division of Labour, Oxford University Press

2 . McCrakken, G, 1988, Culture and Consumption, New Approaches, to the Symbolic Character of Consumption of Goods and Activities, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

3. McCrakken, G, 1988, Culture and Consumption, New Approaches, to the Symbolic Character of Consumption of Goods and Activities, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

4. . McCrakken, G, 1988, Culture and Consumption, New Approaches, to the Symbolic Character of Consumption of Goods and Activities, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

5 Barthes, J, 1973, Elements of Semiology, Hill and Wang, New York.

6 . Williamson, J, 1978, Decoding Advertising, Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, Marion Boyer.

7 . Baudrillard, 1988, The Ecstasy of Communication, Semiotext (E) Foreign Agents Series.

8. Malinowski, 1944, A Scientific Theory of Culture, Chapel Hill, The Univ. of North Carolina Press.

9 . Malinowski, 1944, A Scientific Theory of Culture, Chapel Hill, The Univ. of North Carolina Press.

10. Malinowski, 1944, A Scientific Theory of Culture, Chapel Hill, The Univ. of North Carolina Press.

11 . Vesstagraud and Schroder, 1985, The Language of Advertising, RPK, London.

12 . Barthes, R, SZ,

13 . Cubitt, S, 1978, Lecture notes, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, The London Institute.

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