Built (not) to last – product obsolescence


Do consumer entertainment companies really make products that they hope will break in a short time so that you go back and buy more? Sure they do, writes Alex Kidman.

The concept of product obsolescence was made most famous ? or perhaps that should be infamous ? by an American designer called Brooks Stevens, who came up with this definition for product obsolescence:

?Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.?

That?s a very dry way to look at product obsolescence, though; we?re more convinced by the example of obsolescence put forth in the classic UK comedy The Goodies. In the episode ?Scatty Safari?, the comedy trio are selling all things Rolf Harris-branded while they breed Rolfs in captivity. Leaving that rather unpleasant mental image aside, the Goodies sell Rolf Balloons, designed from the get-go to pop in around five seconds. Why? So that kids will scream and want another one, extracting yet more money from their hapless parents.

Product obsolescence works like that; you build something that won?t last for a particularly long time, while planning to have a new model available at crunch time, with the hope that consumers will bite and give you yet more of their hard-earned cash.

If you?re wondering whether or not it exists in consumer technology, the answer, without a doubt, is a hefty and emphatic yes. For a number of factors ? including the cheap cost of manufacture, the swift pace of technological innovation and the fierce competition between companies for your cash ? pretty much every company out there engages in planned obsolescence, although not surprisingly they won?t really admit to it. After all, who would want to go to market with the message that ?We make products that break??

Fashion often compels people to buy new products that are, functionally, no better than what they already own.  Design, however, is another matter. A product with a pleasing, timeless design is easier to live with for a long time.