Organizations wish to portray themselves in a positive light in public communications, and for this reason, they employ a range of actions and strategies to establish and maintain a positive image of themselves (Benthaus et al. 2016; Lamerz 2021; Shanks et al. 2020). Actions intentionally designed to influence and control people’s perceptions of an organization can be understood as organizational impression management (Bolino et al. 2008; Tyler et al. 2012). Because impression management deals with organizational image and the perception of an organization, it is also referred to as image management or perception management (Lamertz 2021; Merkl-Davies 2016). Organizations may use diverse means of communication as part of their impression management depending on the situation and the target group, for example, annual reports (Edgar et al. 2018; Schleicher 2012), websites (Lamertz et al. 2005; Spear and Roper 2013), social media (Benthaus et al. 2016; Schniederjans et al. 2018), and advertisements (Shanks et al. 2020). In this study, we examined visual rhetoric of inflight magazines as a means of corporate impression management. We focused on cover images due to their prominent role in attracting people’s attention and because they can be understood as display windows to the contents of the magazine (Popp and Mendelson 2010; Xu 2017). Even though organizational impression management is a much-researched topic (Bolino et al. 2016), research on the impression management of airline companies focusing on the visual analysis of inflight magazines is scarce. That said, there has been some prior research on inflight magazines focusing, for instance, on advertisements and illustrations (Fedotova et al. 2015; Small et al. 2008), global and local features deployed in magazines (Maci 2012; Thurlow and Jaworski 2003), and communication strategy (Tedjakusuma and Dewi 2018). However, these studies did not focus on inflight magazines’ images as a means of corporate impression management, which is the focus of our research. In addition, to the best of our knowledge, no prior studies have deployed an analysis of visual rhetoric in this field of study.

Impression management is an integral part of organizational communication that can be divided into internal and external communication. Whereas internal communication refers to communication inside the company, external communication is manifested as a form of providing reciprocal information, cooperation, and organizational dialog activities with external parties or external organizations. This is intended to build an active communication relationship between two or more organizations that communicate. In principle, an organization that has active communication with other organizations to exchange information and establish cooperation and dialogue will be able to solve problems together (Kristina 2020). Actions, services, products, and means of communication influence people’s perceptions and opinions of a company (Diab and Highhouse 2015; Highhouse et al. 2009). For this reason, they can be used strategically as a means of impression management with the aim of promoting a favorable perception of the company.

Among the diverse means of communication, corporate publications contribute to the way people perceive the company (Argenti 2007). Corporate publications are an alternative investment to other media, and they emphasize the need for all organizations to become multi-channel publishers. According to the typical tripartition between paid, earned, and owned media, corporate publications are an example of owned media, which are media outlets and content controlled by organizations. (Xie et al. 2018.) According to the same tripartition, paid media refers to traditional advertising and other forms of content commercially contracted between organizations and mass media (Macnamara 2016), while earned media denotes the editorial publicity generated through media-related activities (Stephen and Galak 2012). Corporate publications can be harnessed to promote the image the company desires. Media images play a major role in impression management (Argenti 2007). They can be conceptualized as framing devices influencing people’s perception, experience, and sense making (Rodriguez and Dimitrova 2011). For this reason, media images can also be understood as forms of visual rhetoric for communicating persuasive messages (Martikainen 2019; Xu 2017) that, for instance, promote a desired image of the company. Thus, from the company’s perspective, images in corporate publications form important means of managing that company’s image (Argenti 2007; Carroll 2011). The communicative power of images is often related to their ability to convey meanings quickly (Nagel et al. 2012; Zollo 2013) and to appeal to emotions (Blair 2004), which also makes them more memorable than verbally communicated messages (Popp and Mendelson 2010; Xu 2017).

This study sets out to examine how the cover images of two airline magazines—Alitalia’s Ulisse magazine and Finnair’s Blue Wings magazine—are used as a means of impression management of the airlines. The study has two research questions: (1) What kinds of images are depicted on the magazine covers? (2) What impression is the airline communicating and constructing through the cover images? Theoretically, this study contributes to the current literature on impression management by focusing on visual rhetoric approach, which is an under-researched topic in the field of corporate impression management. Methodologically, our study advances the research on corporate impression management by applying an analysis of visual rhetoric to study the cover images of inflight magazines.

Literature Review

Corporate Impression Management

Impression management is the concept that is used to articulate how “individuals or organisations manage their legitimacy, reputation or image through communicating their activities and goals” (Perkiss et al. 2020, p. 1). Lamerz (2021) described impression management as social actors’ strategic efforts to shape their appearance in the eyes of others by presenting information about themselves. Several studies have discussed corporate impression management as the management of corporate image (Spear 2017). Highhouse et al. (2009, pp. 1486–1487) conceptualized corporate image as a “transient, malleable mental representation of a firm” that is “held in the mind of the individual, not something possessed by the organization.” In this sense, image can be understood as a mental representation people have of the company that, on the one hand, is formed by diverse factors related to the company and, on the other hand, shapes people’s perception of and relation to the company and its services.

Propelled by seminal works, such as Goffman’s (1959) Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, social psychology has thoroughly investigated how people present themselves in their everyday practices and interact to shape others’ perceptions of them. Through the concept of impression management, Goffman (1959) sought to elaborate on how social actors create and maintain their credibility through a variety of tactics. He claimed that people are able to manage their expressions to influence how other people perceive and respond to them (Goffman, 1959). Goffman (1959) used the theater metaphor to elaborate impression management, where actors’ dialogs, facial expressions, gestures, and costumes were designed to influence the audience’s perception of the character. Goffman (1959) argued that in their everyday lives, ordinary people make use of similar strategies of impression management to establish a favorable image of themselves and to achieve certain interactional ends (see also Dennis et al. 2013; Jacobsen 2017). In Goffman’s (1959) view, the visuals contributed to impression management.

The impression management approach argues that people set some personal goals and then put effort into managing the image of them held by other people in order to support the achievement of their desired goals (Goffman, 1959; Johnson et al. 2016). The underlying assumption of this view is that people need to align their image with the image that is—supposedly—required to achieve these goals. According to Bolino et al. (2008), companies have similar “self-presentational” motivations and needs, and hence, they use these methods of self-presentation as forms of organizational impression management.

Corporate impression management source from the above discussed Goffmanian premises of impression management employed by individual persons (Benthaus et al. 2016; Schniederjans et al. 2018). Companies are social actors with motives and intentions (Highhouse et al. 2009; Whetten et al. 2009). Johnson et al. (2016) understood impression management as a means of organizational persuasion. Bozzolan et al. (2015, p. 145) argued that organizations “are prone to use thoughtfully prepared ‘legitimation’ strategies to influence or even manipulate public perception about their legitimate status” and “to maintain or enhance their image and reputation.” Ginzel et al. (2004) argued that impression management is driven by four motivations: utility maximization, communication of organizational rationality, establishment of organizational legitimacy, and anticipation of audiences’ reactions. Hence, organizational impression management focuses on shaping the interaction between an organization and its customers/audiences in order to control public perception of an organization and to construct, promote, and maintain a positive perception of the organization (Benthaus et al. 2016; Bozzolan et al. 2015; Carter 2006; Ginzel et al. 2004).

The Goffmanian approach to impression management does not think that an individual person can alone decide the way and course of impression management in everyday life without taking the responses of other people into account. Rather, impression management and its strategies evolve over the course of interaction. The interaction partners monitor each other’s behavior and—in normal cases—adjust their responses to each other’s reactions to maintain a positive image of themselves. (Goffman 1959; see also Dennis et al. 2013.) Similarly, organizations must monitor their public perceptions and take their diverse stakeholders into consideration when implementing strategies of impression management. Hence, in addition to being assertive (in terms of proactively persuading audiences of the legitimacy of the company), organizational impression management can also be defensive (in terms of reactively defending the established image of the organization or attempting to restore its tarnished image). (Bolino et al. 2008; Merkl-Davies 2016; Schniederjans et al. 2018; Spear and Roper 2013.) Furthermore, Tyler et al. (2012) suggested that organizational impression management may be anticipatory in terms of bracing anticipated changes in the future.

In addition to public response, organizations monitor how other organizations present themselves in public. On the one hand, organizational impression management may be receptive to influence from other organizations’ impression management strategies, but on the other hand, it may deliberately choose to employ different strategies to stand out from other organizations (Benthaus et al. 2016). In this sense, organizational impression management can be regarded as symbolic control with the aim of establishing identification (Benthaus et al. 2016; Hartelius and Browning 2008).

Impression management always occurs in a social and cultural context; therefore, the means and strategies of impression management must take the socially constructed systems of norms and values of society into consideration (Perkiss et al. 2020). Hence, impression management is not only guided by organizations’ self-interests but can be understood as an attempt to deal with responses and pressure posed by different stakeholders—such as customers—or to balance organizational image with the norms of society (Brennan and Merkl-Davies 2013; Perkiss et al. 2020). Therefore, impression management can be understood as a reciprocal process—or a negotiation—between the organization, its diverse stakeholders, and the social and cultural context (Ginzel et al. 2004; Perkiss et al. 2020).

Celebrity Endorsement, Country-of Origin Effect, and Corporate Publications as Means of Impression Management

The phenomena of celebrity endorsement and country-of-origin effect have been widely discussed in relation to corporate impression management in general (e.g., Erfgen et al. 2015; Fleck et al. 2014; Schouten et al. 2020) and in the context of airlines in particular (e.g., Gilal et al. 2020; Kansu and Mamuti 2013; Wang et al. 2017).

Company advertisements and corporate publications that use spokespeople can be seen as an attempt to humanize and personify the company and make it more approachable to customers (Fleck et al. 2014). Celebrity endorsement reflects the company’s desire to transfer the positive image of a celebrity onto the company in order to increase customers’ positive attitudes toward it (Schouten et al. 2020; Wang et al. 2017). Prior research suggests that celebrity endorsers contribute positively to the perception of the company, especially when customers find a connection between the celebrity endorser and the product (Fleck et al. 2014; Gilal et al. 2020; Schouten et al. 2020). However, the failure to establish such a connection may result in a phenomenon known as the vampire effect (Erfgen et al. 2015), where celebrity endorsers may attract so much attention that they overshadow the company itself. Even though celebrity endorsers may increase the appeal of the company and generate wishful identification among customers (Shouten et al. 2020), some companies prefer using ordinary people as endorsers. Fleck et al. (2014) stated that customers may find ordinary people to be more authentic, honest, and transparent spokespeople of the company and identify themselves with them better than with celebrities, which can make ordinary people more effective spokespeople than celebrities.

The country-of-origin effect can be understood as the country image that is associated with a company and its products and shapes its perception positively or negatively (Ryan 2008). Hakala et al. (2013) defined country image as a sum of the beliefs, ideas, and impressions that people have of a country. In some cases, all or part of a country’s name may be embedded in the company’s name—as is the case for Alitalia and Finnair—which may strengthen the association with the country of origin. On the one hand, companies may choose to communicate their country of origin to draw benefit from domestic customers’ patriotism and the positive stereotypes customers have about the country and products made in that country (Aichner 2014). Additionally, the company may wish to differentiate itself from other companies in the global market (Aichner 2014). On the other hand, companies may attempt to downplay the association with the county of origin if the country’s image is negative or if the company wishes to appear more global and address people worldwide (Olins 2000). In their study on the relation between brand and country image, Magnusson et al. (2018) found that those brands that were positioned in a congruent manner with the image and stereotypes of the country of origin were perceived as more culturally authentic and evaluated more positively than brands that were incongruent with the country image. The use of celebrities from the same country as the company is one way of communicating the country of origin (Aichner 2014).

Companies that want to create a certain image and build a good reputation need to manage the impressions they project. Companies have a wide set of tools that they can use to manage their impressions, one of which is corporate publications. Some corporate publications are mandatory, like financial disclosure reports. Many other corporate publications are published on a voluntary basis with the goal of managing the impressions of the company among readers of the publication. Corporate publications are also a paradigmatic example of brand journalism (Adriani 2019). Brand journalism applies traditional journalistic principles to organizational communication in order to achieve alignment and action behind the organization’s purpose, vision, values, strategies, operating principles, and priorities (Arrese and Pérez-Latre 2017).

Even though brand journalism is a fairly recent concept, the idea of some kind of corporate or sponsored journalism has been around for decades, and inflight magazines have been pioneers of brand journalism. In 1952, Pan Am was the first airline to publish its own magazine, Clipper Travel (McLaren 2020). In the current century, brand journalism has increasingly used digital technologies (Bull 2013); however, printed inflight magazines still continue to be published (Bull 2013; Schniederjans et al. 2018). There are three primary reasons for this (Lugtu 2019). First, 74% of passengers read inflight magazine, and passengers do not have any digital distraction. Second, travel media has the most affluent readership in the world. Third, travelers are 50% more engaged when reading inflight than when on the ground. Hence, it can be argued that inflight magazines—both in print and digital formats—are important means for airlines to manage their impressions and reputations (Stefano 2018).


The data for this study consist of 90 cover images from Alitalia’s Ulisse magazine and Finnair’s Blue Wings magazine published between January 2016 and February 2020 (when the most recent Ulisse issue was published). During this time span, 49 issues of Ulisse magazine and 41 issues of Blue Wings magazine were published. The cover images were accessed from the Alitalia website ( and the Finnair website ( However, at the beginning of August 2019, Alitalia removed the 2016 and 2017 issues of its magazine from the website.

Because we analyzed how the cover images of inflight magazines operate as a means of corporate impression management, we were interested in finding out what kind of visual rhetorical strategies they employed. For this reason, we used analysis of visual rhetoric as the method of analysis. Analysis of visual rhetoric is useful for determining how an image is constructed visually and how that visual construction shapes the meanings it communicates (Danesi 2017; Foss 2005; Martikainen, 2019). We divided the analysis of visual rhetoric into two analytical stages with distinct methods of analysis: content analysis and social semiotic analysis.

First, the data were analyzed using content analysis. Qualitative analysis can begin with content analysis and the classification of content into categories is a way to understand the characteristics and contents of the data and summarize the data (Krippendorff 2004; Schreier 2014). The units of classification may range from single words and visual elements to meanings communicated through them (Cohen et al. 2007; Mayring 2014). Visual content analysis is used to examine the people, objects, and environments represented in images (Bell 2012; Rose 2016).

In this particular study, content analysis was applied inductively, and hence, the visual elements and subject matters in the magazine covers served as the basis of classification. When analyzing images of people, attention was paid to gender, age, profession/role, facial expression, gaze, attire, pose, and activities/actions, which are commonly examined in visual content analysis of images representing people (Bell 2012). When analyzing environments, attention was paid to their identification and visual features. After classifying the subject matter, elements of visual expression—such as color, composition, and framing—were scrutinized because they contribute to how the subject matter is represented and perceived. By including the elements of visual expression in the analysis, the content analysis was complemented with features of compositional analysis (Rose 2016). As is typical of qualitative content analysis in general, we focused on analyzing the data based on what is presented in the data (Cohen et al. 2007). In visual analysis, the qualitative approach requires that researchers pay careful attention to the ways of visual expression as well as the subject matter constructed through them (Rose 2016). Hence, our qualitative content analysis of the images focused on examining both the subject matter and ways of visual expression. This served as the basis for classifying the images. We counted the frequencies of the subject matter because we wanted to provide readers with an overall understanding of the frequency of certain visually perceivable features. The quantification of visual features aims to increase the transparency of the analysis, and its function is to support the findings produced by qualitative content analysis (Krippendorff 2004; Moser and Korstjens 2018).

Second, the content analysis findings were analyzed using social semiotic analysis (Jewitt and Oyama 2004; Kress and van Leeuwen 2006), in which visual elements were interpreted using a culturally available matrix of meanings as the resource of sense making. Our social semiotic analysis is based on Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006) Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, which introduces culturally preferred ways of reading images in western societies. In practice, semiotic analysis is the process where visual features of images—such as colors, viewing angle, and compositional characteristics—are turned into meanings.

Despite the fact that there are culturally preferred ways of reading and interpreting images (Kress and van Leeuwen 2006), matters related to the perceiver and context influence perception, and for this reason, people may interpret images in different ways. We are aware that our professional and cultural backgrounds also influence the way we perceive images; thus, the findings cannot be understood as objective or neutral. One of the authors specializes in visual culture studies and social psychology, and the other specializes in corporate communication, which clarifies our theoretical and methodological approach to studying inflight magazines as forms of corporate impression management. In the analysis, we utilized our knowledge of the culturally preferred readings of the visual images.

In order to elaborate and justify our findings, we describe the images, quantify their visual elements, elaborate on why we interpreted images in a particular way, and include image examples in the Appendix. We hope these measures not only help the readers to follow the analytical procedure but also to evaluate its appropriateness.


In this section, we first present the findings related to Alitalia’s Ulisse magazine and Finnair’s Blue Wings magazine. This is followed by the interpretation of the images—the social semiotic analysis of the visual elements—based on the work of Kress and van Leeuwen (2006).

Alitalia’s Ulisse Magazine

The data consisted of 49 cover images of Ulisse magazine between January 2016 and February 2020 (when the most recent issue of Ulisse was published). The cover images depicted four themes or subject matters: celebrities (23 cover images), travel destinations (13 cover images), arts and culture (seven cover images), and the airline itself (two cover images). In Addition, four cover images depicted diverse themes that did not fit into the above classes but did not form any distinctive class either.

Cover Images Depicting People

(see Appendix, Images 1, 2, 3, and 4).

When analyzing the cover images of Ulisse magazine featuring people, all of the people depicted were either Italian (n = 16) or non-Italian (n = 7) celebrities. Sixteen cover images depicted male celebrities, and seven depicted female celebrities. In terms of age, three people were between 20 and 40 years, 13 were between 41 and 60 years, and seven people were older than 60 years. However, the cover images had been manipulated so that all of the people looked younger than their age. Nineteen celebrities represented some field of culture (fashion, design, music, movies, or dance), and four represented other fields. The majority of the people had a direct gaze (n = 19), creating the impression of communication with the viewer, whereas four people had averted gazes, either turned sideways or looking past the viewer. Twelve people looked serious, while 11 were depicted with a hint of smile. In terms of attire, 10 people wore formal or festive attire, such as a suit or a fashionable garment, mostly in dark colors. Eleven people wore casual but trendy and fashionable clothes, and two persons wore a polo shirt. All of the people on the cover images were slim.

In terms of framing, the majority of the images were either full-length images (n = 8) or half-length images (n = 11) that framed the person further away from the spectator, creating an impression of control and distance. Only four images were closeups forming a more casual and intimate relationship with the person in the image. From the 23 cover images depicting people, 14 images were color photographs, and nine were black-and-white photographs. The colors of the images were modified through photo editing. For this reason, the colors followed a controlled and consistent color scheme. Similar to the black-and-white photographs, the color photographs distanced the images from everyday realism or the feeling of an everyday encounter. This impression was further strengthened through the fact that the images were not snapshots of people in their everyday activities, but rather all of them posed for the photographer either in a studio or in a similar controlled environment. Altogether, 16 cover images employed the golden ratio as the compositional principle of the image, whereas five images used central composition, and two images did not seem to follow any particular compositional principle. The use of the golden ratio and central composition strengthened the impression that the images were deliberately constructed and not spontaneously taken.

Male and female celebrities were depicted differently on the covers of Ulisse magazine. The frontal pose and the contrast created by light and shadow or dark and light colors in the depictions of male celebrities communicate dynamism, persistence, and self-assurance. All female celebrities, in turn, were carefully styled, dressed, and made up. Their poses and fitted clothes displayed their feminine figures. In several images of female celebrities, there was less contrast in terms of light and shadow, which increased the impression of softness. In addition, details such as revealing necklines, attire with transparent black cloth, and an open mouth with a hint of smile furnished some images with sensuality and sex appeal.

In summary, the cover images of Ulisse magazine depicting people all featured Italian or international celebrities who mostly wore formal, festive, and fashionable clothes and posed for the photographer either in a studio or in a carefully chosen environment. Images of celebrities convey subtle luxury beyond everyday encounters. In terms of visual expressions, the feeling of extraordinariness and luxury was strengthened through the careful and consistent design of the color scheme and composition. In addition, the detachment from everyday encounters was constructed using mostly full-length or half-length images that framed the celebrities further away from the viewer. Depicting celebrities instead of ordinary people, using a controlled color scheme and composition, and avoiding mismatching visual elements all created the feeling of style and elegance beyond everyday reality. The images of celebrities are likely intended to construct an impression of Alitalia as the airline preferred by celebrities. Table 1 breaks down the depictions of the people on the covers of Ulisse magazine (Table 1).

Table 1 Characteristics of the Ulisse cover images depicting people (n = 23)

Cover Images Depicting Travel Destinations

(see Appendix, Images 5, 6, and 7).

Out of the 13 images depicting travel destinations, 11 showed places outside Italy and two were of places in Italy. Among the images of travel destinations outside Italy, the locations depicted were in Asia (three), the United States (three), South-America (two), Europe (two), and the Middle East (one). Nine cover images showed urban scenery and four had rural scenery. One image of rural scenery showed people participating in sports in the snow-covered Alps, and one advertising Abu Dhabi showed a man and woman in an exotic interior space. None of the other images of travel destinations depicted people. The colors of the images were highly manipulated, featuring, for instance, sparkling blue waters and the sunrise on the horizon. This manipulation gave the images surrealistic and dream-like qualities. Instead of depicting people and their lives in the travel destinations, the cover images depicted iconic tourist attractions devoid of people. Due to the selection of the settings and the photo editing, the travel destinations emerged as dreamy places beyond everyday reality.

Cover Images Depicting Arts and Culture

(see Appendix, Images 8 and 9).

In addition to celebrities and travel destinations, arts and culture (seven cover images in total) was identified as the third main theme of the cover images in Ulisse magazine. These images showcased art exhibitions and cultural events in Italy and the United States. The cover images related to arts and culture employed diverse modes of visual expression ranging from black-and-white images advertising exhibitions to colorful depictions of street art and pop-art events. With 19 of the celebrity images representing some field of arts and culture and seven cover images related to arts and culture events, arts and culture was the focus of 26 cover images total, making this the most frequent theme in Ulisse magazine.

In summary, the cover images of Ulisse magazine strongly advocated themes related to arts and culture. Celebrities and travel destinations formed the other two major subject matters of the cover images. Due to the choices of subject matter, the highly controlled visual expression, and the photo editing techniques, the cover images of Ulisse magazine created a liminal sphere characterized by luxury and elegance detached from everyday encounters and experiences. In addition, the airline was portrayed as the choice of celebrities.

Finnair’s Blue Wings Magazine

The 41 cover images of Finnair’s Blue Wings magazine published between January 2016 and February 2020 depicted people with different professions and in different travel destinations. People were the main visual object of 40 cover images. Of these, 27 images portrayed people in diverse professions, and 13 depicted travelers in various Finnish and foreign travel destinations.

The cover images of Blue Wings magazine communicated two main themes. The first theme was a healthy lifestyle. This theme included depictions of people enjoying nature, participating in sports, and eating healthy and natural food. The other theme was arts and culture, including visual arts, design, music, and dance. Within this theme, typical products and brands associated with Finland, such as Moomin and textile and wood designs, were included.

Depictions of People on the Cover Images

(see Appendix, Images 10, 11, 12, and 13).

Out of the 41 issues of Finnair’s Blue Wings magazine, 40 images depicted people and one was a landscape. A woman was depicted in 19 images, a man in 12, both a woman and man in six, two women in two, and two men in one. Twenty-seven people were of Finnish origin, and 13 were not Finnish. Six cover images featured well-known Finnish or Nordic people, whereas the rest of the cover images (n = 34) depicted ordinary people, usually rising professionals (whose names were given in the column inside the magazine) or anonymous travelers.

Seven cover images represented entrepreneurs in different fields, for instance, hotel keepers, lifestyle entrepreneurs, and designers. Similarly, seven cover images depicted travelers, who were mostly shown participating in summer and winter sports. Six cover images featured people whose profession was related to food (chefs and food producers). The theme of these images was mainly healthy eating. Visual artists were depicted in five cover images, whereas designers and music professionals were both featured on three cover images each. Other professions included were a philosopher, model, actor, editor-in-chief, and florist. Altogether, 24 people represented arts and culture and 16 people were from some other field.

It was difficult to determine the ages of some of the people depicted in the cover images because their personal details were not given to verify their age. However, the majority of people looked young and were estimated to be between 20 and 40 years old, while two people were believed to be between 40 and 60 years old. Bearing this age distribution in mind, the people depicted in the cover images would still be in the early stages of their careers and not yet have established their reputations. Instead, they are people with promising talent or an innovative approach to their profession.

Except for three people, all of the people in the cover images of Blue Wings magazine wore casual clothes, such as jeans, T-shirts, pullovers, and sportswear. Three cover images depicted chefs wearing an apron, and one showed a Sami artist from the North of Finland wearing a national costume. The same casual style characterized images of both men and women. Women also wore relaxed, comfortable clothes and were either shown without makeup or wearing natural-looking makeup. Twenty-four people looked serious in the photographs, and 16 people were either laughing or smiling. Twenty-two people looked straight at the viewer, while 18 people had averted gazes. Eight of the people with averted gazes were photographed while working or performing a chore, which gave a more casual impression than those who posed for the photographer. Fifteen images were full-length photographs, and 21 images were half-length photographs that framed the people further away from the spectator compared to the four closeups.

All of the cover images were in color. However, except for a couple of photographs with bright colors, the color schemes were earthy and natural, with grayish light, gray and brown pieces of clothing and interiors, and elements of nature included in the images. This color scheme created the impression of ordinary people and everyday scenes and experiences. In contrast, images featuring summer or winter scenery were characterized by bluish tones, conveying a feeling of freshness. Twenty-one people were depicted in nature or with nature in the background. Eleven people were depicted in their workplace or with items related to their work identifiable in the image. In eight images, the background was either a plain wall or an unidentifiable outdoor location. Despite most of the people clearly posing for the photographer, the fact that they were depicted either in nature or in their workplace made the photographs feel more casual than they would have if they were taken in a studio. Table 2 breaks down the depictions of the people on the covers of Blue Wings magazine (Table 2).

Table 2 Characteristics of the Blue Wings cover images depicting people (n = 40)

Depictions of Travel Destinations in the Cover Images

(see Appendix, Images 14, 15 and 16).

Eight cover images showed foreign travel destinations, and five cover images were related to travel in Finland. Among these images, only one featured a scene without people. In the remaining 12 cover images, people were the main visual “objects” in the image and were depicted experiencing the travel destination. Rather than depicting “portraits” of foreign or Finnish travel destinations using iconic tourist attractions, the images showed people exploring the travel destinations and partaking in sports in nature. People in these travel destinations were not depicted admiring iconic tourist attractions but rather taking part in normal life in the city or spending time in nature. The cover images conveyed the message that it is not the travel destination per se that makes the experience but the travelers themselves when they actively observe, perceive, participate in, and enjoy life in the travel destinations. In addition, the cover images seemed to speak to the meaningfulness of everyday encounters and experiences in tourist attractions. Thus, traveling is not depicted as a luxury but rather as part of the ordinary lifestyle of contemporary people.

In summary, the cover images of Finnair’s Blue Wings magazine created the impression of an airline for ordinary people who want to explore the world in an casual and relaxed manner. Through showcasing relatively young people who are innovative professionals in their fields of expertise, the airline conveys an impression of dynamism, creativity, and future orientation. By showing images of casually dressed people exploring travel destinations and actively participating in everyday scenes, the images communicate that travel is easy and available to everybody. It is easy to identify oneself with the ordinary looking people depicted in the cover images. Instead of depicting travel as a distant dream that is only possible for the rich and famous, travel is shown to be a lifestyle open to everybody.


The aim of our study was to explore the images of two inflight magazines—Ulisse (Alitalia) and Blue Wings (Finnair)—as a means of corporate impression management. Corporate impression management through corporate publications targeted at customers (like inflight magazines) can be understood as an attempt to rhetorize and construct a desired image of the company among its customers and other external stakeholders. Therefore, we used visual rhetoric analysis to explore the image/impression communicated by the companies and the visual strategies used to communicate it.

We found two main themes in the cover images of both Ulisse and Blue Wings: people and travel destinations. However, the people and places as well as the visual means of depicting them deviated between the two magazines. Whereas cover images in Ulisse magazine featured Italian and international celebrities known throughout the world, Blue Wings magazine mostly depicted “regular” people or promising young professionals who have not yet established their reputation. In terms of travel destinations, Ulisse mostly depicted iconic urban attractions, whereas Blue Wings depicted more ordinary environments within travel destinations. In addition, the travel destinations in Ulisse generally did not include people in the scene, whereas the travel destinations in Blue Wings featured people exploring ordinary sights or participating in normal everyday activities in the travel destinations. Hence, the visual rhetoric of Ulisse and Blue Wings were similar in terms of the choice of subject matter (people and travel destinations), but the visual expression of this subject matter was highly different.

Ulisse magazine strategically depicted celebrities on its cover images in order to shape the perception of Alitalia as an airline for celebrities. Based on prior research, celebrity endorsers may function as sources of “wishful identification” for customers (Schouten et al. 2020), furnishing the airline with an air of fame and luxury. The choice of using celebrity endorsers is congruent with the magazine’s depiction of travel destinations using highly photo-edited, iconic attractions. Fleck et al. (2014, p. 84) wrote that celebrity endorsers can “magically transport consumers to an idealized place,” which is reflected in the narrative of Ulisse. The magazine’s depiction of mainly Italian celebrities representing arts and culture as well as events related to arts and culture echoed the image of Italy as a country with a strong artistic and cultural heritage (Snaiderbauer 2010). Olins (2000, p. 260) referred to Alitalia’s country-of-origin effect as characterizing Italy as “a bizarre mixture of Michelangelo, Benetton, Verdi and pasta.” Hence, Ulisse magazine depends on the traditional image of Italy’s cultural heritage. Italy is largely associated with style, elegance, and sophistication (Aiello et al. 2015; Snaiderbauer 2010; Temperini et al. 2016). The choice of subject matter (celebrities, iconic tourist attractions, and arts and culture events) as well as the stylish layouts of the cover images and use of photo editing foster this association with Italy. In summary, Ulisse magazine constructs an image of Alitalia as an exclusive, luxury airline enabling customers to have extraordinary experiences. However, it is questionable how well this image of Alitalia corresponds to the image local and foreign customers have about the airline. According to Mazzola et al. (2006), Alitalia has suffered from a poor reputation due to a financial crisis. Following Magnusson et al. (2018) argument that incongruence between brand and country image may generate negative evaluations of the brand, Alitalia’s strategy for impression management risks was being perceived as inauthentic. However, this type of impression management may be targeted to restore the airlines’ tarnished image (Merkl-Davies 2016).

The cover images of Blue Wings magazine depicted mostly unknown or anonymous people or young professionals with promising talent (but who were not famous), which clearly differs from the celebrity endorsement identified in Ulisse magazine. Prior studies have shown that ordinary people as endorsers may be perceived as more authentic and truthful than celebrity endorsers (Fleck et al. 2014; Schouten et al. 2020). According to Fleck et al. (2014), using ordinary people as endorsers can inspire a sense of empathy and thus may be more identifiable to customers compared to celebrities, who evoke idealization. Simultaneously, unknown and ordinary people promote the impression of Finnair as an affordable airline for ordinary people. The people depicted in the cover images of Blue Wings were mostly young, emerging professionals, which relates to the country image of Finland as progressive and innovative (Ryan 2008). The fact that Blue Wings magazine did not depict iconic attractions from travel destinations but rather people exploring the destinations and partaking in activities is related to the Finnish (and other Nordic countries; Ryan 2008) emphasis on a physically active lifestyle. Another feature of country of origin identifiable in the cover images was the association with nature (Ryan 2008). Nature and landscapes are depicted in the backgrounds of many images, and people are shown partaking in sports and spending leisure time in nature.

In terms of the elements of visual expression, the composition, framing, and viewing angle were fairly similar between the two magazines. In contrast, the use of color differed considerably. The covers of Ulisse depicting celebrities used rich but consistent colors or a black-and-white color scheme, which together with the carefully designed composition added to the air of luxury and sophistication. The magazine’s images of travel destinations featured highly manipulated colors, which made them appear surreal and dream like. The covers of Blue Wings depicting both people and travel destinations used down-to-earth and natural colors (often shades of grey), generating associations with reality and everyday life, or bluish colors, generating associations with freshness. (Kress and van Leeuwen 2006.) Hence, the use of color in both magazines was congruent with both the characteristics of its endorsers and the country-of-origin effect.

Theoretically, this study contributes to the current knowledge of rhetorical approach to visual impression management in corporate communications, which is an under-researched topic in the field of corporate impression management. By using a visual rhetorical analysis to studying the cover images of the two inflight magazines during the time span of four years, this study could identify recurrent patterns and strategies of visual impression management employed by both airlines. Through these findings, this study hopes to increase the awareness of the persuasive functions of corporate publications and develop skills of critical visual literacy among their audiences. Even though this study focused on impression management employed in inflight magazines of two airlines, the applicability of the rhetorical approach introduced in this study does not limit to inflight magazines or airlines alone but can be applied to studying strategies of visual impression management in corporate communication at large.

Strengths and Limitations

Our study focused on exploring the cover images of two inflight magazines as a method of corporate impression management. Our study has both strengths and limitations. One of the strengths is related to the research method. The study used a visual rhetoric approach to shed light on how visuals construct an image of an airline, with attention given to both subject matter and means of visual expression. To the best of our knowledge, this is the only study to employ this method in the field of airlines. This is surprising since visuals play an ever increasing role in impression management due to the increased number of communication channels that rely on images and the heightened visuality of our contemporary era. In addition, the study compared the inflight magazines of two national carriers, which made it possible to study the strategies of visual impression management in relation to their cultural contexts.

Even though we consider the visual approach to be a strength of our study, this is only one constituent of impression management. Factors related to the situation of perception—including the perceiver’s mood—influence the perception. Similarly, when browsing through a printed inflight magazine, the paper grade, quality, feel, and scent can also influence perception. While our focus was on the cover images, the rest of the images in the magazine could also be relevant in terms of impression formation. However, research shows that the cover image is the primary reason why people decide to read a magazine (Popp and Mendelson 2010; Xu 2017). In addition, we studied only the production aspect in an attempt to identify the impression desired by the airline and the visual strategies used to construct it. Our visual analysis was based on culturally preferred reading of images in Western societies (Kress and van Leeuwen 2006), which allowed us to construct an image the airlines project to its readers through the cover images of their inflight magazines. However, studying the image projected by the airlines is only one side of the coin, since customers’ perceptions of the airlines were not studied. People coming from different cultural backgrounds—especially other than Western—might perceive cover images in different ways and evaluate the airline in different ways. In the future, it would be interesting to focus on how customers perceive the cover images of these two inflight magazines.


Our study showed that Alitalia and Finnair have different strategies for impression management and used different visual rhetorical devices to communicate them. Whereas Ulisse portrayed Alitalia as an airline for celebrities and people who wish to visit idealized destinations, Blue Wings depicted Finnair as an airline for ordinary people who want to travel to down-to-earth destinations where they can actively participate in their travel. Based on this finding, we conclude that Alitalia endeavors to construct an image as a celebrity airline for luxurious travel destinations. Due to its recent financial difficulties, the effectiveness of its corporate impression management, including Ulisse magazine, will be crucial to its relaunch. In contrast, Finnair endeavors to create a reputation as an airline for ordinary people and down-to-earth destinations. Based on the cover images of Ulisse and Blue Wings, Alitalia and Finnair not only address different target groups with different symbolic, emotional, and experiential needs and expectations for travel but also give the impression that they take their travelers to two very different worlds even when flying to the same destination. Thus is the power of impression management.