Are we all suckers for a conspiracy called planned obsolescence? Alan Phillips here examines the case for and against the most controversial practice in the modern marketplace, and tells how stylists, engineers, and salesmen make room for new products before old ones wear out

December 17 1960


Are we all suckers for a conspiracy called planned obsolescence? Alan Phillips here examines the case for and against the most controversial practice in the modern marketplace, and tells how stylists, engineers, and salesmen make room for new products before old ones wear out

December 17 1960


“This approach has resulted in customer confusion and uncertainty, has had a part in depressing the appliance market, and has helped create the unhealthy emphasis on price now plaguing all independent appliance dealers”

—Fred Maytag II, chairman, Maytag Company

“The most important single factor responsible for the growth and vitality of the appliance industry, the automobile industry, and many others”

—Herman Lehman, general manager, Frigidaire

“A price increase in disguise”

—Dexter Masters, director, Consumers Union

“One of the villains in the appliance field”

—Monte Florman, appliance-testing chief, Consumers Union

“An engineer's principal purpose''

—Elisha Gray II, chairman, Whirlpool Corporation

“Plain gypping”

—Walter Teague, industrial designer

SOME TIME IN THE EARLY FIFTIES, North Americans crossed the threshold of the Alice-in-Wonderland world that economists call the age of abundance. The consumer, who was once taught the value of thrift, is now exhorted ever deeper into debt to buy the goods cascading from our automated machines. The manufacturer, who once equated honesty with quality, has been strangely silent this decade on durability.

The gospel of production has led us into the promised land. Most homes have electric stoves and washers, radios, TV, refrigerators. The market for consumer goods is nearing saturation. Some metal industries are cutting output. To keep production lines rolling more than a third of all manufacturers, according to 3,100 executives polled by the Harvard Business Review, rely on what economist Joseph Schumpeter calls "creative destruction”—planned obsolescence.

This term describes the fine art of shortening the life of consumer products and was seldom discussed, until recently, within earshot of the consumer. But a growing group of businessmen are rebelling against the practice and the issue has moved from executive suites to the forum of public opinion.

On one side are those who think our prosperity hinges on planned obsolescence. Unless goods are used up quickly, they say. sales and production will fall, incomes will drop, and unemployment will spread. Says the chairman of the Whirlpool Corporation, Elisha Gray II. “Any attempts by various people to toady up to the public by saying they are against planned obsolescence is so much commercial demagogy.”

This is clearly aimed at the rebels, led by George Romney, president of American Motors, who look on planned obsolescence as criminal waste. Franklin Huddle, a conservation specialist with Defense Research and Engineering. U.S. Department of Defense, estimates the annual bill in the U.S. for "this unnecessary deterioration” at ten to twenty billion dollars. He believes that "a vigorous national campaign . . . with the understanding co-operation of the producers of durable goods in particular could surely halve the loss.”

Huddle disagrees with those who say this would strangle sales. "If all wood were routinely protected from rot," he says, “more could be used. If my car lasted twice as long, I could afford two cars or three.” Romney, leading just such a crusade as Huddle calls for, thinks the current slowdown in sales stems from consumer resistance to prices pushed up by planned obsolescence.

This phrase confuses the issue. It lumps together genuine obsolescence—real innovation—with artificial or forced obsolescence. It spans widely differing shades of morality. It can mean redesigning a product merely to make the consumer unhappy with the model she already has, known as psychological obsolescence. It can mean "death-dating" a product, deliberately building in a breakdown. And it can mean giving the public only part of what you have, holding back an improvement to outdate the product on the market whenever its sales start to sag.

These are the methods by which business is said to seek its salvation. But fact and rumor are inextricably mingled. Is it true, for instance, as Vance Packard suggests in his new book The Waste Makers, that there are "overtones of manipulation" in the way that stereophonic sound was held back?

When a stereo method was patented in 1931 no company believed that its promotion would pay off. After the war, long-playing records and hi-fi boomed phonograph sales until the market reached saturation in 1957. That fall Decca Records (London) and Westrex (New York) demonstrated stereo to producers. Their engineers met twice but couldn’t agree on which system to use. It was winter when RCA Victor, by going ahead, swung the others to Westrex.

In early spring of 1958 one larger producer (who wasn't even yet in production) linked his name to the new development by announcing sets for sale—and the rush was on. Consumers Union, the world's biggest product research organization, tested 35 one-piece sets. Not one had real stereo effect. "Businessmen can't be sure what competitors are doing." says Martin Mayer, author of Madison Avenue, U.S.A. "The over-riding market necessity is to be early."

“I remember when du Pont announced 100 percent Dacron cloth," says Morris Kaplan, Consumers Union technical director. "They had suits made up and they advertised that you could go swimming in them. We were able to establish in one month that they were unsuitable—they now make them of Dacron and wool—so a company as big as du Pont could have done it." Rather than hold back improvement, he says, "manufacturers foist off products on the consumer before they're ready.”

"I can't see any planned obsolescence of this kind," agrees Mitchell Cotter, CU's audio-testing chief. "But lack of sound engineering and irresponsibility toward the consumer result in unplanned obsolescence. There's a tendency for the manufacturer to take a devil-may-care attitude in the fond belief that he'll make it better next time."

East year, when the Shell Oil Company brought out Oilprint, an easy method for telling when a car needs an oil change, a Shell official in the U. S. admitted, “Some of our people felt that this system might reduce oil sales . . . but it was decided to let the chips fall where they may. If the tests show the need for an oil change only every 4.000 miles, let them change it every 4.000 miles.”

The second means to creative destructions, built-in failure, is "common practice" the AFL-CIO Digest claims. Those most frequently indicted are the makers of light bulbs, tires, car bodies, mufflers, TV sets and appliances.

"This area of possible planned obsolescence," says author Martin Mayer, "is so highly charged emotionally that it is virtually impossible to get accurate evidence of actual procedure." It is possible, however, to assess the quality of those products that industry's critics say have been debased.

"Light bulbs," says David Lees, consultant for Electrical Contractor, "had a capacity of 500 hours about twenty years ago. Now the standard bulb lasts two thousand hours."

“The average life of a first-line tire." says a B. F. Goodrich Company official, “is 25,000 to 30,000 miles, about the same as ten years ago. But a wheel then was sixteen inches. Now it's fourteen inches. Naturally the tire gets more wear. A car today is twenty-five percent heavier than ten years ago. Brakes are so powerful a child can stop three tons with her little toe—something has to give and it’s not the cement. We've more horsepower, more superhighways, we drive faster, and heat breaks down rubber. Just to keep even we've had to develop new compounds, new tread designs, and electronic controls for mixing and curing."

Car bodies do last longer now

Car bodies last longer today, the Canadian Automobile Chamber of Commerce asserts, wherever corrosive chemicals aren't used on winter roads. "Unfortunately, the steels most liable to corrode are those easiest to fabricate,” says Laurence Crooks, Consumers Union auto consultant and no apologist for the industry. "The auto companies could protect cars better and they say they're trying to. I think they're sincere. The ability to sell a new car depends on what happens to the old one."

In 1925 the average car ran 6.5 years and 25,750 miles before it was scrapped. In 1935 it ran 8.3 years and 58,000 miles. In 1941 it was 10.2 and 85,500. In 1956, the last figure available, it was 11.1 years and 104,000 miles. "We just traded in a cab at 140,000 miles," says Al Sadoff of the Diamond Taxicab Association in Toronto. “Considering the beating they take today—more traffic, more stopping and starting—we find cars better than they used to be."

The quickening corrosion of mufflers, accompanying the switch to high-octane gas, could undoubtedly be prevented—at a cost. But Chrysler, in 1955, offered a nickel-cadmium battery that lasted the lifetime of the car. At $140 few people bought it. Only the second-hand-car buyer would benefit.

"An early RCA TV set, its 10-inch 630, was built like a battleship—it just didn't break down,” says Karl Nagel, TV-testing chief for Consumers Union. “It reproduced the full picture just as it came from the station. Since then picture quality has worsened. Sound has been neglected, at least on table models. The only real improvements have been in picture size, stability and sensitivity.”

Most certainly, RCA could make such trouble-free sets today. Tubes could be made to last many years, Nagel says. "But would they sell more sets if they did? I doubt if people would pay the price. For the money the 630 cost you can now buy two sets, with 23-inch screens and the look of a bookcase instead of a fridge." As Consumer Bulletin, another research organization, concludes, “It is doubtful if consumers want long-lasting products at the prices they would require.”

The charges against appliance makers, seldom documented, appear to be based on the rising rate of breakdowns. Repairs now cost the average family from $100 to $150 a year, and Robert S. Geran of Kelvinator foresees the day when a family will budget $500 a year for “servicing operations." But does this mean that manufacturers are death-dating their products?

In washers tested, says Monte Florman, CU appliance-testing chief, "the number of recent failures due to poor quality control and components has run close to fifty percent." In comparison, "the non-automatic washing machine of twenty years ago ran, like the Model T, till it wore out."

Poor quality control in refrigerators, Florman says, was "practically unheard of until this year, when a third of all the new frost-free refrigerators tested had factory defects." Between 1955 and 1957, Hotpoint dealers complained of six or seven service calls each on thousands of automatic laundry appliances.

Was this a Hotpoint policy of planned obsolescence? If so, it should have been relabelled "planned bankruptcy.” To hold goodwill, the company earmarked $10,000,000 for replacements and repairs.

A survey by the Maytag Company shows that the cost of replacing defective parts on automatic washers rose by thirty-two percent in the five years following 1955. In the same period the cost of replacing parts for electric dryers dropped twenty-eight percent. The simpler the machine, the fewer repairs.

Complexity rather than villainy seems to be the cause of high repair hills. Automatic washers have become so complicated that a Frigidaire executive says, "I marvel that housewives can run them." The frost-free refrigerator is a radical innovation. Last year there were only a few makes. This year all producers were selling them—stampeded into copying the leaders. “It's inconceivable," says Florman, "that coming out so fast they could bring out a satisfactory model.”

Some machines have control panels that would baffle a flight engineer. One new Westinghouse stove can he turned on from downtown by the housewife by telephoning home and dialing several extra numbers. Washers dispense soap powders, detergents, bleaches and rinse additives. “The wiring complexity is fantastic," Florman says. “If the serviceman's art could keep pace with the manufacturer's it would he okay, but it can't. The servicemen don’t seem to get proper training, they’re not well paid, and by the time they understand the 1960 model along comes the 1961 with a host of new problems."

Consumers annoyed by breakdowns are further aggravated when the serviceman tells them, "They don’t make this part any more." Some companies stop stocking parts for models only five years old (though Maytag, staunch foe of planned obsolescence, stocks parts for a 1911 wringer-washer). The increasing number of models and their growing gadgetry are filling company warehouses with so many more parts that older lines must be discontinued sooner than in the early Fifties.

The situation is so serious that almost every company is stepping up its quality control. Hotpoint has quadrupled its budget for "torture-testing” washers. Whirlpool is trying out a device that records rough handling in transit. General Electric has set up big-city repair depots. “A full-line appliance company," says Herman Lehman, general manager of Frigidaire in the U. S., "is dependent upon satisfied customers for repeat business.”

"No one plans the mechanical demise of a product." says Dexter Masters, CU director. "They don’t put in a part to wear out when the guarantee lapses. They compare their bids on the part and decide on the cheaper one."

"The Machiavellian approach is too difficult," tester Mitchell Cotter says. "It’s almost as hard to make it fall apart when the guarantee runs out as to make it good in the first place.” No capitalist plot, but the pressure of competition. lies behind any cheapening of quality.

What is commonly termed planned obsolescence is often merely a technique for making the product seem obsolete, outmoding it in the consumer's mind by a style change. "Style," observes the Wall Street analyst Paul Mazur, “can destroy completely the value of possessions even while their utility remains unimpaired."

In 1947, Parisian shapemaker Christian Dior, hacked by Marcel Boussac, the French textile magnate, deliberately dropped his skirt lengths so low that no housewife could re-hem her clothes. His New Look lifted the French textile industry out of a slump and supplied Detroit with the pattern for making a four-wheeled machine high fashion. By 1952 even such workaday goods as washing machines were striving for the glamor that turns the New Look of today into the drab cliché of tomorrow.

The formula for destruction is the Annual Model Change, perfected by coups and failures, but still a gamble. To hedge the bets, Joseph Seldin, a New York consultant on advertising, says "Madison Avenue mounts an $11 billion annual advertising barrage to sell consumers on the middle-class ethos that ownership of the up-to-date is prima focie proof of superior status."

The watch industry, which once boasted that "watches just won't wear out," is now plugging cheap new models to match ones wardrobe. Armstrong Cork has announced a program to antiquate floor coverings every five years. Pointed Italian toes are making other styles in women’s shoes obsolete, along with their wearers' inclination for walking.

"Often only a superficial facelifting"

The idea underlying the model change is to date the product, preferably at a glance, to embarrass style-conscious customers into buying. To speed the process, four out of five furniture dealers in the U.S. now accept old furniture as trade-ins. Singer Sewing Machine, RCA Victor, Johnson Motors, the electric-shaver companies, even the makers of silverware, are all emulating Detroit’s magic trade-in-your-old-model technique. "Camera makers," says Bertram Strauss, a CU division chief, "seem to feel that if they don't change models every six months—even every three months, it's as bad as that—they're going to be left behind."

“Sometimes these models represent significant improvements," says Fred Maytag II, chairman of the Maytag Company, "but most frequently they embody only a superficial facelifting." Says Louis Cheskin of the Color Research Institute: "Most design changes are made not for improving the product, either aesthetically or functionally, but for making it obsolete."

"We’ve seen it in our own business in almost everything we make," says Bernard Chapman, head of Kelvinator in the U. S. "Change a handle here. Modify a shelf there. Call it next year’s model.”

Chapman recently lined up a number of major appliances in his office. "We showed comparable models, a year or so apart, with brand identification hidden," he says, "and we asked . . . visitors if they could tell which were newer, and which were better. . . We even confused a visiting dealer, who actually handled some of the lines shown."

The instigator of social unrest is the modern industrial designer, a combination of artist, seer, engineer and pollster, whose ideal is that jack-of-all-arts, Leonardo da Vinci. Even while the designers new product is ringing the cash register, he is dreaming up another to outmode it. Working in an unpredictable realm of taste and prejudice, he strives to manipulate desire with fresh shapes and color.

In 1954 Frigidaire broke with precedent by unveiling pastel-tinted kitchen appliances. Research had indicated that color spurs spending. True enough, one of every three buyers of the new line already owned a fridge less than live years old. Color, concluded a company official, "will enable us to reduce significantly the trade-in span from eleven years to perhaps seven or even lower."

Changing size along with shape can jack up the "ticket" or price tag. The standard cars, which have added four feet to their length in three decades, are now so large that power steering is necessary. Dealers, the New Republic reports, are "chortling over the great expanse of curved glass . . . The sun will poach the occupants and, it is hoped, boom the sale of air conditioners."

The limit of size having been reached, says U. S. designer Robert Cumberford, "it has become a commercial necessity for cars to be made smaller so that there may be some size change to be talked about." The new compacts, hailed as a breakthrough, he says, "are nothing more than a return to standard dimensions of ten years ago."

Often, designers are "running up and down stairs," as the garment trade terms the lifting and lowering of skirts. The Ivy League style raised men’s lapels. Next year's British Look will lower them. The Windsor collar, long out, is in again as the "Italian collar." Refrigerators have gone back to the shape of the old-fashioned icebox. The square two-story house is back in style.

A style change is more successful if the public can be persuaded that the new model does a better job. Thus Chrysler advertised the "aerodynamic" value of fins, although, says Doug Kaill, editor of Design Engineering and a onetime design engineer, "Stabilization isn't a problem until you hit about two hundred miles an hour."

The designer sells change and his role is growing fast. We had ten industrial designers in Canada ten years ago. Now we have about fifty, a quarter of them consultants. In the U.S.. some 300 firms do a $40,000,000-a-year trade, and one prominent practitioner, Richard Hamilton, pointing out that designers work up to five years ahead, proposes during this "time lag" to use "propaganda techniques . . . to design consumers to the product."

Consumers are conditioned in a small way now by the users of plastics and textiles, who since 1955 have coincided with curious consistency in their choice of “the" color for the year. Dwight E. Robinson, a University of Washington professor who studied fashion on a foundation grant, notes that "of recent years the styling divisions of the automobile manufacturers have established regular channels of communication with key people in the women’s fashion trades." They, like designers of men's wear, can reach agreement on what to promote through their yearly association meetings.

Industrial designers, however. are waxing increasingly bitter at change for its own sake, at what they call "week-end" or “in and out" styling. The dean of U.S. designers, Walter Teague, calls it "plain gypping.” Says the eminent Walter Margulies, “Our role used to be to make products better, now it's to make them sell better."

An unnecessary change, they say, puts the cost of the product up. Retooling for a model change can cost the car industry up to one and a half billion dollars. "If they didn’t spend so much on planned obsolescence." says Laurence Crooks. CU auto consultant, “they could afford more mechanical improvements."

Car makers say only three of ten buyers look under the hood. "Stylists don’t want a lot of chrome either," says Virgil M. Exner, vice-president in charge of styling for Chrysler. “But every attempt I know of that has ever been made to strip a car, to take off its chrome, has met with failure."

In 1957 Buick and Oldsmobile were given added body strength by two pillars that split the rear window's. People thought they looked old-fashioned, sales shrank, and the pillars vanished. Chrysler Corporation, in 1956, brought out a "sensible" car, one minus chrome and body overhang. Its share of the market dropped to fifteen percent. Next year, Exner unveiled his Forward Look, longest, lowest car on the road. Sales boomed back up to 19.5 percent so fast that Chrysler left it unchanged in 1958. Result: its share of the market dropped again.

People buy “excitement," Exner feels. They’re "lazy and pushbutton-happy," a Ford executive says. Ford's "Cellini of chrome," vice-president of styling George Walker, says, "We figure that eighty percent of all car purchases are decided on by women. A woman is naturally style-conscious . . . she wants beauty on wheels."

The Harvard Business Review poll of 3,100 executives shows that nearly half think eleven to twenty-five percent of all durable-goods sales depend on styling. “You couldn't maintain a good dealer organization without annual models," says H. N. Muller of Canadian Westinghouse. "The dealer would say, ‘The other fellow has something to talk about and we haven't.' "

The higher sales from annual styles more than pay for the cost of retooling, says John F. Gordon, president of General Motors. By creating new challenges each year, says Herman Lehman of Frigidaire, it has sharpened competition and made it possible to sell a 1961 11-cubic-foot refrigerator for $122.80 less than a 1951 model of the same size.

From the businessman's view, design has one function—to increase sales. This gives us manufacture for sale, not manufacture for use. "In order to get the effect of stereo," illustrates David Maness, Consumers Union publications director, "you need six to ten feet between speakers. At the same time, market research shows that consumers want a package. So far we have very little stereo."

"When a styling feature vies with a practical feature," auto consultant Laurence Crooks says, "styling usually wins."

Manufacturers seem guilty of making what most people want. Is this reprehensible? Are morals involved? Is function, then, more ethical than beauty? Can the standards of depression remain those of a boom? In a mobile, constantly changing world, is durability the supreme value?

"Back in the Twenties our manufacturers built hand lawnmowers to last," says Canadian designer Ernie Orr. "They used to boast you could kick them downstairs and it wouldn't hurt them. In the early Fifties, English lawnmowers started to come in. They were smaller, lighter, two-toned, with red wheels and tubular handles. Within three years our hand-lawnmower makers were out of business. A product can be over-designed."

The columnist for Home Furnishings Daily, Raymond Reed, points out that the makers of loom-woven carpets lost eight or nine million square yards of business a year by “insisting upon supplying a carpet that would wear 30-40 years for a vehicle that would wind up on the scrap heap in five or six." The morality involved would seem to be waste.

Is it wasteful, as some claim, to outmode goods before they're outworn? No. says designer Brooks Stevens, defender of style obsolescence, "because used articles are not generally discarded or thrown away. They move into the used-product market to reach someone of lesser purchasing power in a much finer condition than the subsequent buyer could otherwise afford." It is, in effect, a redistribution of wealth.

“If we have a secret weapon to unleash on the stagnant, drab, faceless society that worships massism, it is the ability to change.” says Bay Estes, a vice-president of U. S. Steel Corporation. "Eighty percent of our products weren’t on the market ten years ago,” Orr says. "Unless you're always changing, your product will fall behind, and then you’ve got to compete on price and you can’t—the other fellow’s got the volume. Today we find security in change.”

"The furniture business is in a had way,” says Canadian designer John Brook, "because it didn’t make more people unhappy with what they had. Singer Sewing Machine is in financial trouble because it had no sales philosophy and two new products captured its market. You can’t hold back ideas.”

U.N. companies are spending five billion dollars this year to conceive and develop new ideas. "It is innovation alone," declares economist George Terborgh, “that has created the capital goods that are the object of investment and without which we would still be living in caves." Now that needs have been met, businessmen must create desires. Giiving the customer what he wants is no longer good enough, for no one knows what he wants until he sees it.

But real innovation is a risk. Big manufacturers often play safe by copying the competition, by frittering away their research funds on gimmicks and small style changes. “Obsolescence is all well and good," said business writer Charles Krauss, after a 1958 tour of U.S. appliance plants, "but the industry hasn’t been producing it."

Does this lie behind the so-called consumer rebellion, which has prompted General Motors and Ford to extend their new-car guarantees to twelve months or 12,000 miles? American Motors, Maytag and Philco are betting it does. They’ve renounced the annual model change. They will now bring out new models only when they can offer an improvement.

“We know that when the word ‘new’ is added in a big yellow patch to a package, it generally increases sales,” says Ciordon Lippincott, co-chief of a large New York design firm. "But we suspect that the consumer is beginning to have doubts . . . The consumer has seen the big yellow patch shouting ’new’ too often on too many products that were really not new." This is the reason the Edsel car flopped, Lippincott thinks. Puffed as a brand-new car, it was just “a new configuration of chrome."

For the manufacturer the issue is real versus phony obsolescence. Proponents of the annual change contend that yearly deadlines put pressure behind the search for improvement. Opponents say that setting up new sources of supply, new machine tools, new advertising campaigns leaves little time to study new materials or new processes, to pursue the basic research that brings the breakthroughs. It makes the engineer, on whom quality depends, little more than a pushbutton for the sales staff.

"As individuals we need a real sense of purpose in our work," says Bernard Chapman of Kelvinator, "and it is difficult for a man to get a sense of purpose out of a laborious contribution to a doodle."

When a designer works by the calendar, says Richard Latham, a top stylist, “he begins to run short of acceptable variations. Then, little by little, he is pushed into creating ridiculous changes. When consumers recognize this, styling ceases to motivate them to buy."

Chapman points to the automobile tailfin as the most revealing example. “What caused a great and resourceful industry to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into such a meaningless device? There is only one answer . . . the industry gradually created a Frankenstein out of annual models. Under competitive pressure to make the product appear different each year as each company got on the forced-draft obsolescence bandwagon, the makers began to resort more and more to sheet-metal additions and convolutions.”

All fashions end in excess, as Paris couturier Paul Poiret once said, and in 1958, the year of the tailfin, sales of standard American cars dropped thirty percent while sales of the smaller and more economical foreign cars soared.

In Washington last May most of the hundred women at the third National Congress on Better Living called on manufacturers to chop frills and raise quality. A survey of 2,002 Chicago housewives last year showed that they expected their stoves to last 15.8 years, refrigerators 14.7, washers 12.1 and TVs 8.6.

“A basic change has taken place in the nature of conspicuous consumption,” says American Motors president George Romney. "People no longer want new products as status symbols. Now they look for other things—a swimming pool, maybe, or a trip to Europe."

In this statement lies the issue for the consumer. Is our higher spending giving us a higher standard of living? If we ignore durability are we buying improvement instead—more comfort, convenience or fun—or an illusion?