Planned obsolescence

From Academic Kids

Planned obsolescence (also built-in obsolescence (UK)) is the conscious decision on the part of an agency to produce a consumer product that will become obsolete in a defined time frame. Planned obsolescence has great benefits for a producer in that it means a consumer will buy their product repeatedly, as their old one is no longer functional or desirable. It exists in many different products from vehicles to lightbulbs, from buildings to software. There is, however, the potential backlash of consumers that become aware of such obsolescence; such consumers can shed their loyalty and buy from a company that caters to their desire for a more durable product.

Planned obsolescence was first developed in the 1920s and 1930s when mass production had opened every minute aspect of the production process to exacting analysis.

Estimates of planned obsolescence can influence a company's decisions about product engineering; there is little business reason to make a product that lasts longer than anyone is expected to use it. Therefore the company can use the least expensive components that satisfy product lifetime projections. Such decisions are part of a broader discipline known as value engineering.


Types of planned obsolescence

Technical or functional obsolescence

The design of most consumer products includes an expected average lifetime permeating all stages of development. For instance, no auto-parts maker would run the extra cost of ensuring a part lasts for forty years if few cars spend more than five years on the road. Thus, it must be decided early in the design of a complex product how long it is designed to last so that each component can be made to those specifications.

Planned obsolescence is made more likely by having the cost of repairs being comparable to replacement costs, or by actually refusing to provide service or parts any longer. A product might even never have been serviceable. For instance, at some point Microsoft will no longer provide customer support for Windows 95, creating a greater incentive to buy a more up-to-date version of Windows.

Creating new lines of products that do not interoperate with older products can also make an older model quickly obsolete, forcing replacement.

Style obsolescence

Marketing may be driven primarily by aesthetic design. Product categories where this is the case display a fashion cycle. By continually introducing new designs and retargeting or discontinuing others, a manufacturer can "ride the fashion cycle." Examples of such product categories include automobiles (style obsolescence), with a strict yearly schedule of new models, and the almost entirely style-driven clothing industry (riding the fashion cycle).

Expiry dates

Many products today have expiry dates long before they become inedible or unusable. Potato chips or soft drinks have dates that if exceeded will not be hazardous. Products like milk and yogurt also err greatly on the side of caution meaning that vast amounts of perfectly good food is thrown out each year that must then be replaced by consumers. Other products like razors or toothbrushes also have dates past which they can be used with no ill effects.

Economics of planned obsolescence

Planned obsolescence tends to work best when a producer has at least a partial monopoly. Before introducing a planned obsolescence the producer has to know that the consumer is at least somewhat likely to buy a replacement from them. In these cases of planned obsolescence there is an information gap between the producer, who knows how long the product was designed to last, and the consumer, who does not. Planned obsolescence is thus considered by many to be one of the inefficiencies of a monopoly. When a market becomes more competitive, product lifespans tend to increase. When Japanese and European vehicles with longer lifespans entered the American market in the 1960s and 1970s, the American carmakers were forced to respond by building more durable products.

However, there are some industries where there is significant competition and consumers have chosen to go for products that will fail more quickly anyway. For instance, lightbulbs that last many years can easily be made for a price that would be considerably lower per hour of lifetime than conventional ones. These bulbs are used by almost all businesses and industries. Consumers, however, tend to balk at paying two or three times as much even when it might save them money in the end.

Even in a situation where planned obsolescence is appealing to both producer and consumer there can also be significant harm to society in the form of negative externalities. Continuously replacing, rather than repairing products, creates more waste, pollution, and uses more natural resources.

Some consumers are also perfectly content with planned obsolescence. The buildings housing suburban box stores such as Walmarts and Home Depots are not built to last any longer than twenty-five years. In this instance the retailers want the cheapest buildings possible. Stores are relocated or redesigned often enough that a longer lifespan would be useless to the consumer.

Others have defended planned obsolescence as a necessary driving force behind innovation and economic growth. Many products, such as DVDs, become both cheaper and more useful the more people have them. Would DVD players have been adopted as quickly, or even at all, if VCRs didn't break irreparably after three years?

Planned obsolescence will also tend to benefit those companies with the most modern and up-to-date products, thus encouraging extra investment in research and development that often has large positive externalities.

There is a tendency for people towards conservatism in their purchases, a predilection some economist believe to be excessive and harmful to the economy. These economists would argue, for instance, that Microsoft's efforts to encourage consumers to move from Windows 95 to Windows XP by withdrawing support and interoperability for the older operating system is a necessary corrective to people's natural aversion to change.

Origins of the term

The phrase was made popular by Brooks Stevens, the American industrial designer, in 1954. Stevens was due to give a talk at an advertising conference in Minneapolis in 1954. Without giving it much thought he used the term as the title of his talk the next day. The title could have been interchangeable, like most of the talks he gave about his design firm.

From that point on, the phrase "Planned Obsolescence" became Stevens’ catchphrase. He was challenged to define it by his audience, and he felt the need to rationalise. The official definition he came up with was: "Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." It became something that he would be repeating for the rest of his career, and he took nearly every opportunity to present his philosophy.

The idea was not that there was anything wrong with the old model, but that the new one was more desirable. For example, in 1966, in one of Stevens’ talks, he said: "When I design a 1961 model car I am not styling it for the man who bought one in 1960, I’m styling it for the man next door who didn’t buy it when his neighbour did."

Steven's term Planned Obsolescence was taken up by other people, and his own definition was challenged. The term seemed to take on new and alternative meanings. So what had originally been an abstract concept that Stevens had pulled from his hat had now become a concrete theory that was being scrutinized by other designers and design critics. He had only come up with a definition for it after he was challenged. But still, the philosophy of Planned Obsolescence had become a belief system that was being taken into account by industrial companies.

By the late 50s, Planned Obsolescence had become a commonly used term that people understood, although it wasn’t looked on favourably. In 1959, Volkswagen brought out an advertising campaign for their cars, and the slogan proudly read “We do not believe in planned obsolescence. We don’t change a car for the sake of change.”

Right from the outset, Stevens had discovered by accident that the easiest way to become famous and to have his designs and his firm recognized was to gain infamy. He believed that any attention was good attention, so he relished attacks made at him by the likes of the Volkswagen Corporation.

In 1960, a pop culture critic Vance Packard had a book published called “The Waste Makers”. In it he criticized Stevens for having a sinister strategy behind his theory of planned obsolescence.

To justify himself, Packard then hijacked the term Planned Obsolescence in his book and sub categorized it into two sections. The first one was Psychological Obsolescence and the second was Functional Obsolescence.

Psychological Obsolescence was more or less in keeping with Stevens’ original definition, though Packard’s interpretation was that there was a sinister motive behind it. He said that the approach behind Psychological Obsolescence was to make the product “old-fashioned, conspicuously non-modern.” In other words, he said that Stevens was brainwashing the customers into believing that the old product they owned was no longer good enough, now that there was an updated, modern and more desirable version available.

The second one, Functional Obsolescence, was equally manipulative of the consumer, in Packard’s view. He said that Stevens was designing products deliberately so that they would wear out or break in the future - the consumer would be forced to buy another one and keep Stevens in business. Brooks Stevens had never intended his definition to be interpreted in this way, and he found himself having to defend himself against Packard’s definition of functional obsolescence.

One of Vance Packard's criticisms of planning for Functional Obsolescence was related to an ethical principle. He believed that manipulating a customer into buying a new product before the old one had come to the end of its life was fuelling wastefulness. However, Brooks Stevens was not taken aback by Packard’s harsh denunciations of his design philosophy. He dismissed Packard’s book “Wastemakers” as a scare headline book. (129). He believed that all publicity was good publicity, so he was unfazed by other people’s objections, and he enjoyed the infamy.

Though Stevens made the term popular, it is important to note that it was used long before the "designer of disposal" got his hands on it. Origins appear to go back as far as 1932 (possibly further) with Bernard London's Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence.

See also: obsolescence


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