Planned Obsolescence—The Down­fall of Durability

The term planned obsolescence is the second most dangerous concept ever invented by marketers. (The first is retail therapy, discussed in the conclusion.) It encourages us to give up or throw away perfectly good things in favor of others simply because we’re led to believe that they’re no longer useful or fashionable.

The phrase was coined in the late 1920s, but it was popularized by an industrial designer, Brooks Stevens, in the 1950s and found par­ticular popularity in the automobile industry in convincing Americans to purchase new cars more often. It became a major driving force for American cars and car buyers, who became so fixated on trends and styling in cars that they upgraded frequently. Instead of invent­ing new features that would improve people’s lives (how much longer did we have to wait for intermittent wipers, cup holders, and release latches inside trunks?), car designers were told to focus on dramatic, often outlandish, and sometimes even dangerous styling elements.

Now, as I said in the “Introduction,” styling isn’t bad. Styling is often the expression of our own individuality or our identities. The problem here was that car companies made unsuspecting people think they were all but un-American if they drove a car that was more than four or five years old. Styling during this time was more about ornamentation than fash­ion or design. It fed on insecurities—and even created them —rather than satisfying people emotionally or meaningfully.

The term planned obsolescence is the second most dangerous concept ever invented by marketers.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t be able to buy something fresher, newer, or more appropriate. People’s tastes evolve. Wine col­lectors regularly cull perfectly great wines from their collection that no longer hold their inter­est, appreciation, or imagination. But they don’t throw away these valuable wines, but rather sell them to other wine enthusiasts who will appreciate them. They wouldn’t think of simply opening the bottles and dumping them down the drain.