TANSTAAFL*

Consumers did not exist prior to WW2. People did. It was after the postwar boom in the United States that a variety of existing professions evolved and morphed to meet the needs of Big Business as industrial production and wealth increased. Consumers were created to meet the unmet needs of the producers. The Waste Makers, published in 1960, states that inventories in post war industrial America were piling up as the durable goods, cars and services were saturating markets even as people were not buying or replacing their possessions that frequently. They’d not thought of entering other markets yet. That would wait for another 20 years before Theodore Levitt wrote his "Globalization of markets".

Advertising, marketing, promotions and products were all swept up in an integrated national attempt to encourage the American consumer to buy more. [BusinessWeek 1955 cover story on Planned Obsolescence in the auto industry broke the news!] The industrial designer Brookes Stevens coined the term "planned obsolescence" where products would be designed to go "out of style". This concept spread widely amongst the giant manufacturing sectors of automotives and white good in the fifties. Even in the 30’s and 40’s  GE had specified that their bulbs be designed to burn out hundreds of hours sooner than could actually be designed and built.

"Consumer culture" and "the good life" and its specifications built on consumption of goods and services spread outwards from the US but its reach and thinking not as embedded in other parts of the world or restricted to the top 10-20% of the population. Or, in the case of countries with large numbers of the underprivileged, there was always someone who could use an old pair of shoes or would buy your empty bottles from you along with the newspapers for recycling.

This cycle of consumption, dispose or throw away, buy anew, rinse repeat refresh has gotten shorter and shorter, and not entirely due to Wall Street’s insistence on monthly and quarterly earnings reports. Its also heavily conditioned society in three or more generations of exposure to mass media on the largest scale around the world in recorded history.

Giles Slade wrote the book on the history of planned obsolescence "Made to Break" – from an interview with BusinessWeek, May 22 2006:

Can’t your case studies of planned obsolescence and the sales generated from new products be seen as historically effective marketing strategies, though?

Obsolescence is the reason why America has enjoyed this century of prosperity and success. It’s a strange little American invention and an effective idea for a miracle economy. It can create new industries and jobs — for initial consumption, though. Then the demand just flattens out.

The turning point in the history of obsolescence happened during the war between Ford (F) and GM (GM) in the 1920s. Before that, inventors and companies were interested in raw improvement — that’s what drove the industrial revolution. But Alfred Sloan, GM’s CEO, found that he had all sorts of problems with marketing. Its competition, Ford’s Tin Lizzy, was built to last 10 years. At first, Sloan planned to pursue technological innovation, to make GM’s cars better than Ford’s. And then he realized he didn’t have to.

His solution? Redesign existing cars cosmetically. New GM’s looked better than the Fords. And they were slightly cheaper. So they sold like hotcakes. Sloan realized GM could now redesign cars every three years by just making minor changes. The idea worked. In 1923, Ford lost 60% of its market.

Just read the rest of it. "Can we reposition this stuff as eco-friendly?" [cadmium?]

*There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

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2 Responses to TANSTAAFL*

  1. Kyle Pontier says:

    Have you read Victor Papanack’s “Design for the Real World”…?
    There is a lot in common between your world views.

  2. niti bhan says:

    Thank you for the pointer Kyle, I hadn’t read the book, in fact.

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