What is Planned Obsolescence? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 Planned Obsolescence
  • 0:57 Types of Strategies
  • 1:49 Light Bulb Example
  • 2:35 Other Examples
  • 3:45 Consumer Demanded Obsolescence
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson may seem like a giant conspiracy theory, but it's really not. That gadget of yours that's not working? It could've failed because it was designed to fail, not to last. Find out more about planned obsolescence in this lesson.

Planned Obsolescence

Did you just get a printer a couple of years ago only to have it fail on you for no apparent reason? You've got ink, paper, everything seems to sound and work right, but it just won't work? It may not be your fault. It could be due to planned obsolescence, the purposeful implementation of various strategies designed to get a customer to buy another very similar product by making the older one useless, undesirable, or non-functional within a set period of time.

Nope, this isn't a conspiracy theory. It's an actual fact, and that printer example was real, too. The whole point of planned obsolescence is to design a product that doesn't last forever in terms of cosmetics or function. If you're a business, you want customers to keep coming back. If you're the type of person to get rid of your old iPhone and get a new one as soon as it comes out, you're a perfect example of the customer companies try to keep by using planned obsolescence.

Types of Strategies

Planned obsolescence can be achieved in many ways, including:

  1. Using relatively unreliable parts in a product, so it mechanically fails within a relatively predictable period of time. This gets you to discard it and buy the same exact product again or a slightly newer version.
  2. Using software to program a product, like a printer, to fail after a set period of time or number of actions (like printed pages), even if mechanically and structurally the product is fine. A software upgrade incompatible with older hardware is another strategy for planned obsolescence.
  3. Using clever marketing and an insignificant upgrade in a newer product to get you to discard the 'uncool' old one even if it works just fine. Smartphone manufacturers are known for this. Who doesn't want that new camera in the newest phone with all those fancy special effects?

Light Bulb Example

So, let's get to some good examples of planned obsolescence, although you can be sure it's found in just about every general kind of product or industry.

The best and possibly first example of planned obsolescence is a conspiracy agreed to by the major light bulb manufacturers of the early 20th century. They were called the Phoebus cartel and they colluded to purposefully reduce a light bulb's lifetime to 1,000 hours by the mid-20th century. Engineers, who knew way better, were purposefully told to design inferior light bulbs. Thus, over a number of years, lifespans of light bulbs actually decreased by over 1,500 hours per bulb! By comparison, Thomas Edison's first commercial light bulb of 1881 lasted 500 hours longer than a light bulb in the mid-1900s.

Other Examples

While the light bulb is an example of a purposeful technological limitation, Ford and General Motors pioneered a way to get you to buy a car even if you already had a perfectly good one. They were the first to introduce yearly changes to a car model so that you could be enticed to get a newer and 'better' car and stay one step ahead of the Jones' in how you looked in society.

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