Airports, Duty-Free Shops and the Web

After the pandemic hiatus, flying internationally is back in its full mode. Airports are busy again and travelers have returned to this particular kind of places. Entering and exiting gates, transiting customs and security checks, traversing duty-free shops, people is back, inhabiting the airports buildings temporarily. Something that have stroked me recently, as I have started to travel by air more often, is the expansion of retail stores in major cities airports. Spaces of flows, airports have been crucial sites for capitalist experiments in mobility, surveillance, ordering and consumerism. In recent years, commerce has taken over airports transforming them into a sort of shopping centers that travelers are forced to navigate surrounded by ads, consumer desires and fantasies.

Last summer, while transiting Barajas airport in Madrid in my way back to Bogota, my experience at the international terminal made me realize that the transformation of airports into malls is a bit similar to what happened to the World Wide Web with its commercialization. Both transformations are the result of the advance of consumerism in times of de-industrialization, information capitalism, and creative economies.

I arrived to Barajas airport from Lyon, France, where I was attending the IAMCR conference, and had to change planes. After going through the passport check point and taking an electric train to the international terminal, I got into the entrance of a busy space packed with windowless shops, showcases, banners, and LED signs. Welcome. Bienvenidos. Bem-vindos to Madrid Duty Free.

I felt a bit disoriented and and tried to understand how to get into the gates. Then I followed the steps of other travelers as they walked a serpentine aisle carrying their bags and rolling their suitcases.

I couldn’t resist the temptation to photograph the intense and cluttered commercial landscape. After taken a couple of pictures with my cellphone, one of the vendors approached to me and told me: “Sir, you cannot take pictures here. It is prohibited.”

I reacted with surprise, put my phone on my pocket and continued walking while trying to avoid the bombardment of signs and merchandising. When I exited the space and finally arrived to the gates area, I took a deep breath, looked back and took another picture for the record.

This was perhaps the biggest duty-free shop I had ever crossed, and the feeling of having been forced to become a consumer was intense. It was like being trapped for a couple of minutes in a shopping mall with tiny aisles and visual overload, a space surveilled and controlled, designed to lure travelers into consumption. Bright, colorful, and perfumed products of well known global brands blinked constantly, massaging travelers perception and pushing the desire to consume. Filled with the promise of exclusivity, the duty-free mall promoted consumerism in a particular way. It felt forced and glamours. The sensory experience was overwhelming because it felt like an imperative to consume, a mandate.

Not so many years ago duty-free shops where just one of the stores that people could choose to enter when they traveled by air and transited airports. As a unique shop where people could buy things without paying national taxes, duty-free stores used to sell mainly liquor, tobacco, candy, fragrances, cosmetics and travel accessories. Nowadays, these stores have become, at some airports such as Barajas in Madrid, a whole area at the international terminals that is experienced as a mini mall labyrinth. And that seems to be the trend in most of big cities’ airports around the world. The duty-free shops at El Dorado airport in Bogota, for instance, have also underwent such expansion both at the international arrivals and departure zones, with the establishment of whole aisles of retail shops that travelers must transit after they pass the immigration or the security authority checkpoints. Although the experience at El Dorado is not the one of a whole shopping center yet, it is indeed a mandatory hall that international travelers are forced to traverse.

Commerce and capitalism have conquered the space of the airports. What used to be nowhere places for the ephemeral transit of travelers have become places of consumerism. The case of the duty-free mini-malls is only one aspect of the transformation of airports into shopping centers and markets. Besides supporting the flows of people and goods as they did in the 20th century, nowadays airports have also become spaces for consumption, advertising, and desire. And people who visits them, cannot only be travelers, but are also consumers trapped in a surveilled environment where their fantasies and trips confront overpriced goods and limited time.

Similarly, the World Wide Web has also been conquered by commerce and capitalism during the past decades, transforming virtual spaces for financial gain. Today, most of our online experiences are being monetized, surveilled, controlled, and designed by technology companies which business model is based on data collection and advertising. Although there are few websites that still operate under a non-commercial logic, the main virtual spaces where people interact today such as social media platforms and search engines are commercial and driven by profit. They capture, storage, and analyze the data generated by user interactions in order to sale advertisements, model target audiences, and create consumer profiles.

Not surprisingly, since the mid-1990s the internet’s landscape started to change with the proliferation visual advertisements. From text to pop-up ads, banners, audios and videos, digital advertising and contextual marketing colonized the layout and interfaces of websites and platforms in order to capture users’ attention. As data capture and analysis became more sophisticated tracking users’ online behavior, preferences, and demographics, tech companies delivered not only more personalized and targeted ads, but also were able to control the flows of information to different audiences. Such kind of online experience, cluttered with content that tries to capture our attention and lures us into consumerism, is similar to the one I experimented physically when traversing the Barajas Duty-Free.

However, it is not only the overwhelming visual experience what reveals the similarities between the commercialization of the web and airports. The consumerism massage in both realms is also aural and tactile. The underlying logics of surveillance and control that operate at both spaces, are signs of how digital capitalism advances conquering not only physical and virtual spaces, but also social relationships, human interactions and desires. Particularly on the duty-frees zones that are located at international terminals and that all travelers must go through in order to board planes or exit the buildings, the mandatory experience of consumption is kind of similar to the one that users encounter on multimedia web platforms when they are required to watch, listen and click into to pre-roll ads before they access the desired content. Ad-blockers have helped web users to have a better experience surfing and navigating the web, and are one of the most useful online tools for retaining focus and attention. I wonder if travelers could at some point opt for ad-blockers at airports.

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