Geomedia Speaker Series - Crispin Thurlow
“Elite for the day”: The precarious, violent rhetorics of privilege
The once trademarked slogan “elite for the day” was a marketing strategy promising economy passengers a chance to sample life in the premium lane: upgrades, priority baggage tags, no-middle-seat and “a separate line for boarding the flight, complete with a blue carpet and gold stanchions”. Such is the stuff of privilege, and such is the illusion of distinction. In fact, the slogan epitomizes the issues at the heart of my talk: on the one hand, the symbolic-material production of privilege; on the other hand, the fleeting, precarious nature of (elite) distinction. Drawing on a dataset of promotional materials from nearly 50 international airlines, and using a combination of content- and discourse-analytic methods, I detail the semiotic tactics by which so called Premium Economy services are created and staged. All of which are, of course, designed to fabricate a status distinctive from Economy Class while carefully managing its separation from the even more prestigious Business Class or First Class. This is a most skillful rhetorical accomplishment! My analysis therefore surfaces a number of the rhetorical strategies at work: the blurring of material and symbolic resources; the blending of new and old class markers; the “global semioscaping” of aesthetic agendas; and, ultimately, the normalization of elite status itself. The point of my paper is that these seemingly innocuous texts speak volumes – both metaphoric and literal – about the intensifying class divisions of contemporary life, and about the relentless slicing up and separating of peoples. Indeed, I argue that the notion of “premium” is a quintessentially floating signifier which exercises the kind of hegemonic power Bourdieu famously called “symbolic violence”.
Crispin Thurlow is Professor of Language and Communication in the Department of English at the University of Bern, Switzerland. With an interdisciplinary grounding in discourse studies, sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology and cultural studies, his research examines the social semiotics of “difference” in contemporary life, particularly in the contexts of global mobility and communication technologies. His books include the award-winning Tourism Discourse: Language and Global Mobility and a co-edited collection Digital Discourse: Language and the New Media. In 2014, he was co-editor of a special issue of the Journal of Sociolinguistics titled Sociolinguistics and Tourism. Professor Thurlow is on the editorial board of several international journals, including Critical Discourse Studies, Discourse, Context & Media, the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, and the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication.
 Reported at the time in the Wall Street Journal, the now defunct Continental Airlines launched this campaign in September 2003; the trademark ELITE FOR THE DAY officially expired at the end of 2011.
The schedule for tomorrow is as follow:
December 1st, 9.00-11.30 3B343 presentations by the Geomedia research group
Lunch 11.45 in the VIP Solstad Inn (for those that signed up)
13.15-15.00 11C269 Presentation by Crispin Thurlow