On Christmas Eve, 1924, a group of industrialists held a secret meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. There was no official agenda and not a single man present would confirm the meeting ever took place. Yet, what transpired at that gathering would come to define the future of consumerism. The group became known as the Phoebus cartel, and their particular concern was the longevity of lightbulbs. There were representatives from all the big electrical companies of the day—Osram, Philips, Tungsram, General Electric, and Compagnie des Lampes.
The first lightbulb invented by Thomas Edison in the late nineteenth century could burn for 1,200 hours. Further developments in the technology of incandescence led to an improved lightbulb that could last indefinitely. One only need visit the fire station in Livermore, California to see a light that has glowed continuously since 1901, and still burning. Today, you would be hard-pressed to buy a lightbulb anywhere in the world that will burn for more than 1,000 hours.
Obviously, a lightbulb that never burns out is not good for business, and so at this fateful meeting, the notion of built-in obsolescence was born. It has been defining our lives directly and indirectly ever since. Buy a printer, for example, and it will stop after 100,000 pages. It's controlled by a microchip, which if hacked, can at best, add another few hundred thousand pages to the clock. The same applies to fridges, vacuum cleaners, clothes dryers, cars, and of course the first iPod that hit the market in 2001. Products that run on irreplaceable lithium batteries will not last forever, and the need to replace what has become essential electronic items keeps the wheels of consumption happily turning.
Recently I spent some time playing LEGO with a bunch of kids. As I discussed brands and toys with them, I realized that this younger generation's view of brands is likely to bring about another fascinating change. As they built a giant LEGO castle, I noticed that they followed the instruction manual to the letter. I made the mistake of positioning a flag on a spire facing in the wrong direction. I was quickly informed that if I did not correct it, the castle "would not work." Bear in mind that this is a generation born with a mouse in their hands and a computer screen as a window on the world. They are well aware that if a "dot" is placed incorrectly in an email address, their message will bounce back. What was fascinating, and somewhat scary, was that I was witnessing a new generation of planned obsolescence in action.
Indeed, these kids were born to ever-newer versions of software, hardware, and games. For them, it is perfectly normal to assume that Windows 8 is in the making, just as they're purchasing the newly released Windows 7. And, as sure as night follows day, they know that when they buy their iPhone 4, an iPhone 5 is just around the corner. Popular video games like Halo and Super Mario Bros. come in ever-expanding series. There's version 1, 2, 3, and still counting.
It was fascinating to listen to their conversation about brands and products. One kid wondered why Coke didn't add a version to their product. He thought Coke 5.0 would be good place to start. Another wondered why his Jif peanut butter didn't have a version number. "I mean it's been around for so long, how do you know if something about it has changed if it doesn't have a number?"
While those of us with gray in our hair are often heard muttering, "They don't make things like they used to," this generation has no problem with products that are upgraded while the older version remains perfectly functional. These kids were puzzled by products with no version numbers. It was hard for them to conceive that the Jif peanut butter that first came on the market in 1958 was the same product in 2011.
As I explain in my new book Brandwashed, a number can convince us that what we're seeing is better. In a recent experiment, participants were given two cameras to choose from—one 5 megapixel and the other 7. As is the case, the 7-megapixel camera was more expensive. Before making their final selection, sample photos were shown to the participants. The 7-megapixel images were deliberately downgraded to be less sharp than the 5-megapixel versions. And despite the fact that the 7-megapixel images were of a poorer quality, and more expensive, the majority chose them anyway.
As the world gears up for the mania surrounding the release of the iPhone 5, I can't stop thinking about that small cartel of visionary industrialists who met in Geneva in the early twentieth century. They managed to change the mindset of so many future generations. For better or worse, the actions they took some 87 years ago, means that no one really questions why today we blindly follow the higher number, the latest version, or a few extra pixels. Will the phone calls we make and receive on the iPhone 5 be any clearer, faster, better? We no longer seem to need a dying computer chip to tell us we need to buy a new product. Rather, we've become like well-trained animals that have learned to ask for the newer, smaller, higher, better version. Our mind now does the work, and the world view of the younger generation will ensure that this is but the beginning.
Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best—seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.
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[Image: Flickr user zetson]