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The myth of slower iPhones and the truth of our upgrade addiction

Bill Snyder | Aug. 5, 2014
Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft don't build shoddy products to force upgrades -- they simply play on your deepest fears and desires.

You can thank this man for the 'planned obsolescence' strategy
That mode of doing business wasn't invented by Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or even Henry Ford. It was pioneered by a man who probably never imagined a PC or a smartphone. His name was Edward Bernays, and he was the nephew of Sigmund Freud.

In 1927, a Lehman Brothers banker, Paul Mazur, wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review that encapsulates the modern view of consumer-focused capitalism: "We must shift America from a needs culture to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed."

That stunning statement did not come out of thin air.

At the time, the young market for automobiles was becoming saturated, and manufacturers needed a way to stimulate sales of new cars. Rather than waiting for Models As to fall apart, Ford and other automakers introduced annual model changes that were largely cosmetic. Advertising focused on the cachet of owning a new car with the latest features. Don't want to look like an old fogey? Buy the 1928 Buick Roadster and feel great about yourself.

Indeed, with America's productive capacity soaring, companies were producing more goods than people needed, so there had to be a way to stimulate consumption of all sorts of goods.

Enter Bernays, best known as the father of the public relations industry. He drew on the theories of Freud to develop methods of appealing to people's unconscious desires and thoughts. He famously promoted cigarette smoking by women -- then considered taboo -- by dubbing them "torches of freedom." Later, he helped develop anticommunist propaganda that drew on people's fears of the unknown. (Watch the original version of "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to see this manipulation in action.)

Although they look terribly dated, auto ads from the 1950s contain an important unstated message: You're not a good dad if you force your family to ride in an old car.

The 2002 British documentary "The Century of the Self" explores the impact of Bernays, Freud, and others on our political and economic culture. It's thought-provoking, albeit a bit hard to find (fortunately, you can watch it online). If you have any interest in this topic, I urge you to watch it.

Innovation is now incremental, but we'll buy it anyway
Samsung is a company that understands all of this quite well. Its ads for new Galaxy smartphones play on fears that owning the iPhone is no longer cool. Apple has long played the same game in its advertising battles with Microsoft.

Let's face it: Change in smartphone technology is becoming incremental. The iPhone 5s, for example, is not that much better than the iPhone 4s, much less the iPhone 5. It's no different when you compare one generation of Galaxy smartphones to the next. That's true of tablets as well, which is one reason that market is beginning to stagnate. Frankly, a PC running Windows XP can do an awful lot of the work most people require even 13 years after XP's debut.


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