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Planned vs. Perceived Obsolescence

I recently watched the film Story of Stuff, which is a film about the lifecycle of material goods. While the video has its biases and has thus become politically controversial, I still think the video is worth viewing with a critical mind. There is some good debate on the film’s Wikipedia page, I don’t want to get into it here.

One thing that I did like was her discussion of planned vs. perceived obsolescence. Here are the definitions from the film glossary:

Planned obsolescence: designing and producing products in order for them to be used up (obsolete) within a specific time period. Products may be designed for obsolescence either through function, like a paper coffee cup or a machine with breakable parts, or through “desirability,” like a piece of clothing made for this year’s fashion and then replaced by something totally different next year. Planned obsolescence is also known as “design for the dump.”

Perceived obsolescence: the part of planned obsolescence that refers to “desirability”. In other words, an object may continue to be functional, but it is no longer perceived to be stylish or appropriate, so it is rendered obsolete by perception, rather than by function. Fashion is all about perceived obsolescence, and it could be said that perceived obsolescence is the number one “product” of the advertising industry.

Non-Consumer Alarm!
This made me think about how companies have made easy it is to identify “non-consumers”, which usually leads to them being mocked somehow. Let’s take cars. Models change very often, even if just slightly, so it’s very easy to tell that my car is 10 or 15 years old. My wife and I are often told by our friends and family that our cars don’t match our job titles/income levels. Same with cell phones. If your phone doesn’t have at least a QWERTY keyboard these days, it’s a freaking antique.

As for clothes, I’m always happy that I’m a guy because my closet of long-sleeved dress shirts, cotton polo shirts, slightly baggy jeans, and cargo shorts have managed to last me for over a decade now. Meanwhile, to be a mainstream woman, you went from flare jeans to low-ride jeans to the new thing – skinny jeans. I won’t even go into shoes (UGGs??).

Try it next time you’re in a crowded area, at work, or visit someone’s house. See if you can pick out who hasn’t bought the newest version of something in the last few years.

*You can either watch the video in Flash at the main site or below on YouTube. The part about planned vs. perceived obsolescence is at 12:35 (total length: 20 minutes).

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