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What is Planned Obsolescence?

Laura Singer, Artem Cheprasov
  • Author
    Laura Singer

    Laura Singer taught ESL for academic credit at Los Angeles City College for four years and ELA HS Inclusion for three years before entering the educational publishing field. She has a BA in Humanistic Studies from Johns Hopkins University, an MFA in Film/Video from Calarts, and an MA TESOL from CalState LA.

  • Instructor
    Artem Cheprasov

    Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Understand what planned obsolescence is by learning the planned obsolescence definition and seeing examples. Explore how programmed obsolescence can be achieved. Updated: 03/18/2022

What Is Planned Obsolescence?

One of the conceits of capitalism is that consumers are free agents, choosing what to purchase of their own free will. Consumer spending habits are in many ways dictated, however, by planned obsolescence , the definition of which is the calculated act of making sure the existing version of a product will become dated or useless within a given time frame. The objective of planned obsolescence is to force people to purchase product replacements at an accelerated rate. The sole purpose is to generate more revenue for the manufacturer. It's a bit sinister.

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.

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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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Strategies For Planned Obsolescence

The universe of things available for purchase is vast. Strategies for making those things useless are varied.

It is helpful to break things down into these categories:

  • Unreliable parts
  • Programmed obsolescence
  • Clever marketing

The categories overlap, but drilling down on each one individually shows the scope and reach of planned obsolescence.

Unreliable Parts

When products fail to perform, a frequent culprit is product parts that are unreliable by design, destined to mechanical failure sooner than consumers would expect or want. Children's toys get frequent mention when the discussion is product failure due to inferior parts. Product designers in the toy industry have their choice of materials with which to create their designs and prototypes. Playing roughly, which is to be expected, with a mass-produced toy made up of cheap plastic parts will end that toy's life, rendering it a heap of useless junk.

The toy's price point, in combination with the parent's or guardian's disposable income, mean that the probable remedy will be buying a replacement for the broken item. Brand loyalty figures into the equation and may help tip the scale in favor of the parent or guarding being willing to buy that replacement toy. While ever-increasing sales line the pockets of cynical toy manufacturers, detritus born of cheaply-made toys adds to landfills.

Programmed Obsolescence

Products that run on software may not perform as the consumer expects them to. That's because the product's software is sometimes programmed to make it fail at a specified point. Consumers aren't always aware that this is happening.

One of the more egregious examples of programmed obsolescence, programming a product's software to make the product fail after a certain number of actions have taken place, pertains to printer ink cartridges. Cartridges frequently have perfectly good ink that's inaccessible via smart chip programming. Up to fifty percent of the ink in the cartridge is destined to be wasted.

This is different from the randomly achieved obsolescence wrought by cheap toy parts. In the case of toys, it all depends on the individual's level of roughness when playing. The failure rate is thus difficult to control with toys.

But pre-programming printer ink cartridges to waste ink can be achieved methodically, yielding predictable results. Meanwhile, consumers in the grips of Sisyphean pursuits of functional products are conditioned to yield to manufacturer's plans for them. They continue to purchase replacement cartridges, perhaps adding to growing personal debt in the process.

Another example of software not playing nice with hardware has to do with software upgrades. Around 2014, owners of Apple iPhones were effectively forced to buy new phones without needing to. Apple had created operating system upgrades that made older iPhone models slower and much less functional.

Additionally, and crucially, Apple had failed to inform consumers that new phone batteries would have solved most of the functionality problems they were experiencing with their iPhones. Class action lawsuits ensued and got consolidated into one single suit. As of 2020, Apple was continuing to pay settlements in what has become known as "Batterygate."

Clever Marketing

Consumers are generally pretty savvy. They're not necessarily "falling for" marketing ruses. Consumers are, however, attracted to shiny objects, drawn to the lure of the new. In many cases, this results in accelerated sales cycles for manufacturers. Of course, disposable income amounts vary greatly, but overall, that doesn't hurt manufacturers' bottom line because their products tend to be on the inexpensive side.

That said, even consumers who can't afford the high cost of being "on trend" will often go into debt just to have the latest shapes, colors, textures, and features of clothing, phones, assorted technology gadgets, and so on. Advertising campaigns speak to consumers' deepest desires to feel good about themselves and perhaps be admired by others for their flawless outward presentation of themselves.

In a related vein, most people know they shouldn't eat too much fast food. But they do so anyway. So readily available, fast food proves irresistible to the hungry, time-pressed masses. It doesn't help that fast food marketing visuals show food with unrealistically beautiful, vibrant colors and textures. It's hard not to salivate at the image of fresh lettuce and tomatoes releasing water droplets while being tossed in the air. And it's always just a hop, skip, and jump away to the nearest fast-food emporium.

Planned Obsolescence Examples

There is no shortage of planned obsolescence examples. Whether or not they are aware of the degree to which manufacturers are stacking the deck against them, consumers find themselves caught in a never-ending pursuit of material satisfaction.

Light Bulb

The Centennial Light is a lightbulb in Livermore, CA that's been on since 1901. It represents a counterpoint to planned obsolescence.

But light bulbs are one of the key players in the history of planned obsolescence. From 1925 to 1939, most consumers were forced to purchase new lightbulbs at an artificially accelerated rate. The culprit was the Phoebus cartel, formed as a conspiracy among corporations in several nations to price-fix and product-design their way to ill-gotten gains.

Whereas the first lightbulbs manufactured by Edison had a lifespan of up to about 2,000 hours, those created under Phoebus stewardship lasted only up to 1,000 hours. Designing an inferior lightbulb was actually challenging, but greed being a mighty motivator, the Phoebus lightbulbs were much worse than older versions.

One competitor did manage to force a bit of a wedge and claim a small share of the market by selling lightbulbs at lower prices than Phoebus. But had it not been for the advent of WWII and the impossibility of warring nations cooperating within the cartel structure, Phoebus would surely have continued to successfully conspire against consumers.

Other Examples of Planned Obsolescence

Right around the time when the Phoebus cartel was gearing up, the automobile industry was hitting a slump. In 1924, the head of General Motors corralled the Art and Color Section into creating annual automobile styling updates. The only reason for the updates was to stimulate sales, but the plan was euphemistically referred to as "dynamic obsolescence," as if consumers were merely beneficiaries of exciting changes afoot. Consumers took the bait and sales increased, at least among large manufacturers such as General Motors.

The profit motive is ingrained in the American psyche. It's hardly surprising that the phrase "planned obsolescence" was used in 1932, without any apparent hesitation or self-consciousness, in a pamphlet exhorting Americans to rally 'round capitalism as a way to fix their shattered economy. The pamphlet was earnestly titled Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence. (To be fair, the plan outlined in the pamphlet included increased employment due to the need for increased manufacturing.)

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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Video Transcript

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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Frequently Asked Questions

What does planned obsolescence mean?

Planned obsolescence is when manufacturers design products to unnecessarily become functionally useless or out of style. Planned obsolescence forces consumers to buy replacement products at an artificially accelerated rate. The sole objective is to generate more revenue for the manufacturer.

Is planned obsolescence illegal?

Planned obsolescence, the calculated act of making sure the existing version of a product will become dated or useless within a given time frame, has always been illegal, or at the very least immoral. It's taken until the mid-2010s for planned obsolescence to receive pushback in the form of lawsuits and legislation outlawing the practice.

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