Check This Out: The New Coke 5!

From lightbulbs to iPhones, tech has a history of being produced with planned obsolescence. And our children will never know the alternative.

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.

BrandwashedMartin 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.

Read more by Lindstrom: Facebook's 880 Pages About You!

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10 Comments

  • inorganik

    Planned obsolescence is a little disturbing, but the author of this post comes off sounding like a luddite decrying the importance of version numbers. The things that make the next version of software or the next iPhone better can be measured and proven, we are actually fortunate enough to live in a time when technology is quickly advancing. It's up to parents to teach their kids that food products aren't technological products that we "improve" (we hope, for now.)

    The example of the camera experiment is frustrating, because a 7-megapixel camera IS better than a 5-megapixel camera. Doctoring the photos to make the 7 MP camera look worse is simply misleading the test subject and should invalidate the results of the test.

  • pat grady

    I thought this article was great until I realized who wrote it. This Lindstrom guy is notorious for making claims that he fails to backup, cite, reference, or just simple give meaningful details about. Simply put, don't trust this guy. Fast Company, I wish ya'll would get over love affair with this "author" and get back in the business of publishing credible information. thx, bye.

  • Marina Debore

    What a ridicules comment – I’ve read 4 of his books – and teaches his insight and theories at my university. I can’t think of anyone else in his field which spends the same amount of resources on research and fact checking. I’m sure he makes mistakes (I guess this is human – but perhaps not for you) however compared with the tons of studies he’s conducting all the time you can hardly blame him for it.  

  • Peter Smith

    I have to say that I totally disagree with you. I’ve read Lindstrom’s Brandwashed and his work is absolutely amazing. More than 40 pages of references support all his statements. For sure he’s provocative but that’s what I love about him, he makes you think.

  • Mogwai

    Recent data on some psycho-physiological claims made by Lindstrom in his book suggest he was making some rather simplistic (and wayward) conclusions on peoples reactions to branded objects.

    I find Lindstrom's articles to be based more on his instinct than anything quantifiable. That can still be helpful, just don't take it for anything more than his personal opinion.The article debunking some of Lindstrom's conclusions:http://boingboing.net/2011/10/...

  • Julie

    Two interesting points:
    1. Those kids are very regimented (another word might be legalistic)
    2. At least one kid could think and question when he realized there aren't new versions of favorite food products. Too bad the ages weren't mentioned. Most young children don't have that kind of questioning ability yet.

  • Paul deSousa

    I always thought Kodak invented planned obsolescence. Between 1895 and 1924 Kodak brought over 100 new/different cameras to market. I think the light bulb people were simply interpreting the camera playbook. The point, nevertheless, is the same. My solution is to wait until the good one comes out.

  • Andrew Norris

    nice article, thanks. This part really said something :-

    "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."

    Just shows that a brand can even make images appear better in people's subconscious minds without them even knowing it! Psychologists agree on this, the power of the subconscious. 

  • Andrew Norris

    that's true, but he never said that as I read it. "The first lightbulb invented by Thomas Edison in the late nineteenth century could burn for 1,200 hours. " I.e. the bulb that Edison himself invented could burn for so much longer.