Kevin Miller
Aug 5, 2011

How to determine what media airline passengers will choose while travelling

Kevin Miller, global head of insight at in-flight magazine publisher Ink discusses how the environment impacts airline travellers psychologically and in turn affects their choice of media.

Kevin Miller
Kevin Miller

The airline passenger journey, from home to boarding the plane and beyond, is a dynamic and emotional experience, with many media messages and retail choices along the way.  But how can we measure these changing emotions and the effect they have on the passenger’s state of mind?  And what messages types are most likely to be understood in these states of mind?

Recent research by psychologists, specialising in the field of ethnography (the observation of respondents in the natural environment) has identified the passenger experience to be an unusually dynamic and stimulating experience.  Hannah Knox, a British-based behavioural psychologist has described airports as “An increasingly intensive use of space where anything might happen..."

Red Border has carried out in-airport and cross-media ethnography, identifying distinct emotional zones in the flyer’s journey, as well as the experience of magazine reading. Red Border measured emotion levels by identifying psychological alertness, commonly referred to as “arousal” by psychologists.  Measured through pulse rate, this has been a standard measurement of mental alertness, used widely since the 60s – particularly in US TV audience research. Airports were found to have above the average 72 beats per minute arousal rate, with highest levels in Drop-off and Check-in, with what is termed “moderate” arousal in the Retail and Gate areas.  Interestingly, magazine readers displayed arousal, roughly in line with the retail areas.

The psychologist Berkowitz in 1993 stated that “as arousal increases, involvement with stimuli increases”.  High arousal promotes involvements with visual messaging.  Krugman in 1965 had previously posited that “a consumer becomes involved with an advert when he forms a personal connection and internalises the message” High arousal is key for promoting the absorption of visual data, but also promotes involvement with these images, particularly advertising.

The psychologist Mitchell described involvement as “a high level of psychological arousal or drive” – going as far as to say that arousal is inn itself,  involvement.

The emotions of the passenger are dictated by the psychological effect the environment or “journey zones” have on the passenger.  The mindsets produced by the different environments promote consumption of differing message types, in turn driving the passengers’ media choices and retail activities.

This schematic shows the symbiotic relationship between the environment, the mindset of the passenger and their engagement with messages within that environment.


Red Border also identified successful engagement with advertising in moderately aroused areas, such as the airport retail area, and inflight magazine reading.  All arousal, it seems is good, but different arousal levels were found to promote receptivity to a range of message types.

Greenwald & Leavitt in 1984 identified that “when highly aroused, the most persuasive adverts offer a simple and familiar message”.  This equates to the stand-out, broadcast advertising typically found in Check-in and Airport roadside areas – with simple, non-verbal, logo-driven advert design working best.

Moderately arousing areas such as the airport retail and inflight magazine reading were also found to be successfully effective in advertising recall, promoting receptivity to informative advertising.  “When less aroused, the most persuasive ad offers a novel message”.  Complexity and aspiration takes over, - impact over information – again equating to the retail and interactive advertising formats found after security in the airport, where passengers are more relaxed but still very much alert.

The importance of the environment to the propensity of passengers to perform cognitively and to be involved with their environment is wholly driven by their arousal levels, determined by the zones through which their journey takes them.  These environments, in turn, determine the kinds of message that are best suited to travellers’ emotional needs – simple messages or complex and aspirational product information.  These findings have great implications for message and magazine advert design, and the best way, and most importantly, the most appropriate place for advertisers and airport designers to appeal to their passengers’ needs and mindsets.

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