Planned Obsolescence and Consumer Manipulation

April 9, 2018

In 1901, a light bulb was installed in a fire station in Livermore, California (USA). They lit it and never turned it off. More than 100 years have passed and the light bulb continues to shine like on the first day. This bulb reflects a phenomenon known as planned obsolescence.

What’s so special about this particular light bulb? The truth is that there’s nothing special about it. It’s similar to those created by Thomas Alva Edison in 1881, which lasted 1,500 hours. The centenary light bulb is just an improved model. The obvious question is, why have some earlier technologies survived the test of time more successfully? Keeping in mind that modern media and technology is supposedly more advanced; wouldn’t it be logical for the light bulbs of today to be better? Not the other way around?

This is even more mysterious if we take a look at other modern devices. Old TVs used to last longer than the modern ones do. The same applies to almost all household appliances. Why? The reason is very simple. A pact, sealed in 1924 consecrated planned obsolescence for the entire world.

“Besides being an economy of excess and waste, consumerism is also, and precisely for the same reason, an economy of deception. It bets on the irrationality of consumers, and not on their well-informed decisions. It bets to awaken the consumer’s emotion, and not to cultivate reason.”
-Zygmunt Bauman-

A graveyard of old cellphones.

What is planned obsolescence?

This is the practice of limiting the useful life of products, both artificially and deliberately. This means that manufacturers make items in such a way that they stop working after a certain period of time. It’s not that these products can’t be manufactured differently. They are produced like this in order to increase consumerism.

If someone purchases an item which will work for a long time, that person won’t need to replace it for many years. On the other hand, if the item or product deteriorates relatively quickly, the consumer will have to replace it frequently. So there will be more sales for the manufacturers.

Light bulbs are not the only example of planned obsolescence. Nylon stockings are another example. At first, they used to last for over a year. Nowadays, women can hardly wear them more than twice.

Conspiracy and other forms of obsolescence

There’s a lot of evidence which points to a powerful group of industrialists that gathered at Christmas 1924, in Geneva (Switzerland). That group was known as the “Phoebus Cartel”. One of its first agreements was to ban a patented light bulb which lasted 100.000 hours. Likewise, they made a pact to impose planned obsolescence on many other products.

Nowadays, there are many prevailing forms of planned obsolescence. Here are some:

  • Obsolescence of function – The functionality of a product is increased gradually so the consumer has to purchase the newer models.
  • Quality obsolescence – Items stop working correctly after a certain amount of time or use.
  • Obsolescence of desirability – Fashion and trends are manipulated so that a product will cease to be desirable. Designs improve or details are incorporated which motivate the consumer to “update.”

Currently, we strongly associate planned obsolescence with emotions. Continuous updating is deliberately planned, especially when it comes to technological devices. This generates the desire to acquire the latest model of a product, even if it doesn’t really have major improvements.

Recycling is a form of freedom

All this consumption has the final goal of maintaining a high sales volume of. Planned obsolescence is a strategy to achieve this. The problem is that now people aren’t even paying attention to product quality or usefulness. There is simply a very strong desire to continue consuming.

What used to be a form of market manipulation is now a craving. People have internalized planned obsolescence. Now they want to quickly dispose of their used items and replace them with new ones. This grants many people a feeling of satisfaction, control, and even power.

Faced with these increasingly evident forms of manipulation, the recycling trend emerged. This approach intends to cultivate a culture of reuse. The objective is not only to limit unbridled consumerism, but also to protect the environment.

Ultimately, recycling has a psychological impact as well. It promotes an attitude focused on fixing, instead of discarding. It admits that things can be imperfect and still be useful and valuable. Perhaps this can also translate into a more constructive and humane position in the face of many intangible realities which we discard when deemed problematic.

A light bulb blowing up as a sign of obsolescence