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Alain Giguère

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Do you believe that companies plan the obsolescence of their products so that you buy new ones? 64% of Canadians think they do (and Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini)

Categories: On my radar this week

Posted on 05-29-18 at 3:09 p.m.

In late 2017 and early 2018, Apple was hit with public accusations of building obsolescence into its older smartphones to encourage consumers to upgrade to its newest models. Apple's accusers claimed that the latest versions of Apple's operating system were slowing down the older devices. Apple admitted to doing this but justified the practice as a way to preserve the batteries and extend the life of older devices.

Apple is currently the subject of a number of complaints around the world, accusing the company of using planned obsolescence. This particular public relations storm should remind consumers that many products on the market probably incorporate built-in obsolescence to stimulate sales.

From lightbulbs to cars, from domestic appliances to inkjet printers, we can't help but question the durability of manufactured products these days.

The public outcry against Apple prompted us to ask Canadians if they believed that manufacturers were practicing planned obsolescence in order to stimulate sales of their new models. Respondents were asked which of the two opinions below they agreed with more...

A) In order to facilitate the introduction of new products and support the pace of their innovations, manufacturers design their products with a built-in limited lifespan, thus forcing consumers to purchase a replacement after a shorter period of time

OR

B) It’s not in the best interest of manufacturers to market products that do not last long. Their reputation is in the balance; I don’t think that they deliberately reduce the useful life of their products

To our great surprise, almost two out of three Canadians (64%) believe that manufacturers plan the obsolescence of their products in order to stimulate sales of their new upgraded models. I consider this an enormous proportion - and an indication of a lack of trust, to say the least!

Moreover, this proportion is relatively consistent across all the subgroups we analyzed, apart from a few exceptions with not very large variances. This indicates that there is almost consensus around this issue.

Note that 25-34 year olds and technicians are the most critical of this practice, with 71% and 73% respectively in agreement with our first statement. But overall, the differences on all the analyzed criteria stand at around 3% (68% in Quebec vs. 63% in English Canada in agreement with statement A).

Ecological concerns versus the joy of consumption

When two thirds of the population agree with a proposition, it is difficult to identify what distinguishes them from the rest of the population (since almost everyone is on board with the first statement!). Thus, in terms of values and hut buttons, it is difficult to determine what motivates their attitude.


Nevertheless, we find it interesting that people who believe that manufacturers are using planned obsolescence are distinguished by a high degree of defeatism about the future of the planet, especially in ecological terms. They view consumption as a source of unnecessary gratification with a detrimental impact on the environment. They are very mistrustful of brands, accusing them of creating non-essential needs.

By contrast, those who do not believe that manufacturers are using planned obsolescence are the most enthusiastic about consumption. They see it as a kind of playing field. For them, they find buying something, no matter what it is, particularly pleasurable and stimulating. They trust brands, the companies behind them and their advertising messages. They want to believe in brand promises and enjoy the gratifying experiences that brands offer them. It's as if their consumption enjoyment is blocking their critical faculties!

An economy and consumer psychology fuelled by the joy of consuming

The paradox of consumers' attitude toward planned obsolescence is this: a large majority believe it, but the joy of consumption has grown so much in recent years that people prefer not to think about it. In one of my previous posts, I examined the consumption-as-personal-gratification trend, one that continues to rise in 2018. Planned obsolescence notwithstanding, we increasingly want to enjoy the rewarding experiences we get from consumption. This in turn drives the economy, creates jobs and fills government coffers. Consumption fuels the economy and people derive great satisfaction from it. And, because it is ephemeral, it must be constantly renewed. Whether this is a vicious or virtuous circle depends entirely on your point of view.

We can certainly decry the waste of resources and the impact on the planet caused by our consumption patterns but, given the ever-growing enthusiasm for consumption, neither our awareness of planned obsolescence nor our ecological conscience is likely to slow this trend.

We can only hope that manufacturers incorporate more socially and environmentally responsible business and manufacturing practices over time.

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini


One way to view planned obsolescence is as an act of betrayal on the part of manufacturers. For my operatic pick of the week, it was easy to find examples of betrayal. Operas are packed with them!

One of the most poignant tales of betrayal and the inspiration for some of the most spectacular lyrical flights is Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. It is a horrifying story based on real events (although the original protagonist was French not American.) In the opera, a young American naval officer on layover in Japan marries on an exotic whim a 15-year-old Japanese girl named Cio-Cio-San, gets her pregnant, disappears for three years and returns with his new American wife to take his child home to the United States. Faced with such betrayal, Cio-Cio-San, known as Madame Butterfly, commits suicide.

In this musical clip, "Un bel di, vedremo," one of opera's most beautiful arias, Cio-Cio-San imagines the long-awaited return of her husband.

Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly, Giordani, Racette, Fedderly, Zifchak, Croft, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet, Sony Classical, New York, 2009.