Part II: Whether it was smart or not, by the late 1950s, planned obsolescence had become a practice many people understood, even if it might sometimes be contrary to the idea of long-lasting product quality.
By the late 1950s, planned obsolescence had become a practice many people understood, even if it might sometimes seem contrary to the idea of long-lasting product quality. American buying habits supported the idea that the vast majority of consumers craved a line of products that were perceived as newer and better. And who was going to argue with the revenue side of the equation, when having a legion of products that could be targeted for swelling numbers of future buyers was a salesperson’s orgasm?
In short order we found that the combination of and endless supply stream with bountiful revenue was an ingredient in the manufacture of more waste. Excess inventory in the United States, plus obsolete products gone straight to waste, had unexpectedly become fundamental byproduct in the calculus of planned obsolescence.
In 1960, pop culture critic Vance Packard published “The Waste Makers,” criticizing Stevens for having a sinister strategy behind the theory of planned obsolescence and that the underlying plan was to make products “old-fashioned, conspicuously non-modern.”
Packard raged, even arguing Stevens and his kind were brainwashing customers into believing the old products they owned were no longer good enough — especially if there happened to be an updated and more desirable version available. Stevens may never have meant for his definition to have such an interpretation, but this was the radical 1960s, a time when a new list of public villains grew plentiful.
Stevens would eventually restate his words on the subject, ”Planned obsolescence: the desire to own something a little newer and a little better, and a little sooner than necessary. I simply meant that you didn’t have to wear a pair of shoes until you wore holes right through the soles.”
Planned obsolescence may or may not have been a driving force impacting consumer habits in the way Packard charged, but the practice had become a standard, if unstated production mantra for the manufacturing sector, now glimpsing an abundant world of new product runs on the business horizon. A company that makes one version of a particular product is today an absolute rarity, and probably dangerous. Count how many different razor blades, razors, and shaving cream Gillette manufactures for one straightforward act. Check out how many choices come in the way of tennis shoes, cordless drills, or smart phones, regardless of manufacturer.
For accountants, of course, the ability to graph predictable revenue increases is a math nirvana. Such a place where all things accelerate upward is the companion of stock traders or market makers. A place where climbing sales guarantee jobs, tax revenues – the ultimate “win-win.” The idea that any company should build chairs to last forever might sound quaint philosophically nice – but fatal to any business mapping a plan for sustained growth. Witness again Gillette’s remarkable stockpile of shaving accoutrements.
Helping to fuel planned obsolescence, the average American had become more interested in buying things, in getting something a bit better, ala Stevens. During the last quarter of the 20th century, consumers and marketers managed to tip the scales beyond what had once been considered average buying habits. This consumer chemistry morphed into a land of immaculate consumption, as a friend calls it, a land where appetites could never quite be sated.
The logic of supply and demand became illogical. A new chemistry between population and demand made ledger sheets jump skyward. Long before the 20th century’s end, our supply chain of innovation, demand and consumption had adapted to a new phenomenon, one that embraced the acceleration of technology.
Next: In 1965 Intel co-founder Gordon Moore boldly predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double about every two years. He was right.
About this report: The following series on planned obsolescence is taken from a book Glenn Meyers presently writing, “The Growth Quotient.” Here is an archive of these posts:
- The Greatest Invention: Planned Obsolescence – Part 1
- The Freight Train for Planned Obsolescence Jumps to High-Speed Tracks – Part 2
- Moore’s Law & Planned Obsolescence Construct a Technology Traffic Jam: Part 3
- Planned Obsolescence & the Bubble That Burst: Part 4
- Unplanned Obsolescence & the Texas Back Roads: Part 5
- Planned Obsolescence and the Bic Effect – Part 6
- The Evolution of Planned Obsolescence: Innovation’s Litter – Part 7