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by G.L. Pease
The fact is, Squire, the moment a
man takes to a pipe, he becomes a philosopher.
It’s the poor man’s friend; it
calms the mind, soothes the temper, and
makes a man patient under difficulties.
It has made more good men, good husbands,
kind masters, indulgent fathers,
than any other blessed thing on this
–Thomas Chandler Haliburton, The
In the early 1920s, the automotive industry was reaching a point of market saturation, and General Motors’ recently nominated chief executive, Alfred P. Sloan, wasn’t about to sit back and watch as sales languished. The United States was enjoying a time of rising affluence, and consumers were actively chasing products that would symbolize both status and novelty. So Sloan proposed an interesting strategy he referred to as “dynamic obsolescence,” a way to take advantage of contemporary trends by shortening the average consumer’s replacement cycle. By making design changes with each new model year, he hoped to seduce style conscious car buyers to replace theirs more often, stimulating sales and breathing new life into a languishing market.
Sloan’s reasoning was solid: If next year’s HighwayMaster received a face-lift, it would be more attractive to this generation of trend-conscious consumers, encouraging them to get rid of last year’s now-unfashionable models and buy shiny new ones long before it was functionally necessary. He was betting on the idea that when you met your neighbor on his way to the club, his new car’s updated headlamps and newly designed, gleaming bumpers would cast an inky shadow of last-yearness over your own, leaving you to feel just a little bit déclassé—enough so that you might schedule a trip to the local dealer during the coming week.
His approach paid off, not only driving General Motors to a long-standing position as the automotive industry’s market share leader but also establishing a business model that would continue to be effective well into the next century.
Today, we see examples of this game plan in many products, but nowhere as dramatically as in the digital realm. Computers, mobile phones, digital cameras are all accelerating toward instant obsolescence. That iDevice 17 that you’ve owned for just over a month has already lost its luster, but don’t worry, the 18b is already on its way (and already on its way out). Queue up, open your wallet, and join the frenzy.
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