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Products designed to fail

by The Concordian October 25, 2011

We’ve all succumbed to it. We’ve all bought what we thought was the coolest gadget and then bought a better version a few months later. Many of you might know someone who waited impatiently in line to get the new iPhone 4S just a few weeks ago, though the iPhone 5’s release isn’t too far away. Or you must have already felt the need to buy new clothes just because fall season arrived; I know I have.
This brainwashing method used by product designers encourages us to believe that we will always ‘need’ a new product, whether it is the newest Volkswagen Jetta or the latest MacBook Air. Planned obsolescence is used all over the world in order to make us believe that old products are ‘out’ and that we absolutely need to get what’s ‘in.’ This strategy became used by industries in the middle of the 20th century due to the effects of mass production.
Examples of planned obsolescence are everywhere, such as in car parts which become discontinued after a few years, electronic gadgets, video games and software, not to mention textbooks with revised editions that we all need to buy. The world of fashion also promotes the ‘need’ for us to buy new and fashionable clothing for every changing season.
To achieve this effect, companies use cheaper materials in order to decrease the life projection of products. Simple changes, such as in aesthetic design, can pressure consumers to purchase products they don’t necessarily need.
Don’t forget that it is also predetermined that the product will no longer be useful in a couple of months. Brooks Stevens, an American industrial engineer, inadvertently coined the phrase ‘planned obsolescence’ through a speech he gave at a Minneapolis advertising conference in 1954. He explained that it aims at “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”
Inevitably, a throwaway culture has been created as a result of this marketing strategy. Consumers throw away products which could have potentially been useful for longer because manufacturers aren’t aiming for product durability. As a result, an increasing amount of natural resources are needed to create these newer projects, causing pollution levels to rise and leading to an undeniable amount of waste.
The reason companies would adopt this strategy is simple. Apple will release a new model of the MacBook or the iPhone every few months in order for us to believe that this newer product will improve our lives. They believe that planned obsolescence is meant to satisfy changing consumer demands and acts as the force for economic growth as well as innovation.
Companies always aim for innovation, so why can’t they design products with recyclable parts which we could use to update with the new technology? Or why not guarantee durability? Not only are durable products going to last longer, but the promise of durability is appealing and strategically economical.
We are not made aware of this strategy, yet we come across it every day. We should be wary of when and where planned obsolescence is used and the options given if we don’t want to be pressured into buying what’s ‘in style.’ Being aware of how the strategy works and how it affects our wallets enables us to take steps to avoid this manipulation.
Yes, it is cool to walk around with your new iPhone 4S or drive your new Jetta but it won’t be long before these things go out of style. And they do, faster than we know it.

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