New Internationalist

Tricks They Play

Issue 147

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Tricks they play
Mass production needs mass consumption. But there's a limit to how much we can consume - or at least, there was. Below are some ways we are inveigled into buying more.

PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE

Rapid technological advances in some fields - such as micro-computers - means you may want to change the model frequently. This kind of obsolescence of function is legitimate. Less acceptable is obsolescence of quality where something that should last has parts that repeatedly break down. And psychological obsolescence is the least defensible but most effective of all, making us want something new even when what we have is still working or wearing very well.

A date with death
Reducing the quality of the product to shorten its life is a sure way of forcing the consumer quickly back to the marketplace fora replacement. But if the product dies too soon, you won’t buy that brand again. So the manufacturers must use skill and judgementto predict the exact timing of a product’s demise - ‘death-dating’ as it is called. The US fumishing industry joumal Retailing Daily noted that ‘It is not only our privilege to obsolete home furnishings. It is our obligation. We are obligated to work on obsolescence as our contribution to a healthy, growing society.’

Tips: In general, goods perform better today but for a shorter time. It’s worth boning up on a product and if necessary spending more if you want quality and durability.

In vogue
Better than wearing out products is just to wear them out in the owner’s mind. Fashion can destroy the value of possessions even though they are still perfectly good. Most design changes are made not for improving a product but for making it obsolete: ‘Every industry tries to emulate the women’s fashion industry’. This approach is most noticeable with cars. Genuine technological improvements are not that frequent. But each year new models are brought out to entice us to trade in our old model - it used to be tail fins, then the 5-door hatchback, black fenders and modelled hub caps. And it’s successful. In the words of a Ford executive ‘The change in the, appearance of models each year increases car sales.’

Tips: Don’t believe that ‘new’ means better. If you like what you have, then stick with it.


THE LOCK-IN

Buying a toy or other product may riot be the solated incident you imagined, lake the Siody or Barbie doll for distance. Buy one and you can find yourself locked into a sophisticated marketing systeni which demands that you clothe Srody Barbie in a range of outfits, buy her a horse, a house. a car arid eveo a boyfriend (who also needs clothes of course). By developing the storyline of a product, especially action   toys, the market is opened up.

Tips: Children are prime marketing targets, so explain to yours about the hard-sell techniques being used to extricate their cash (and yours). Encourage them to resist peer-group pressure. Ration how many accessories they can buy. Try to steer them towards a product that does not have a string of accessories locked onto it. But don't have one rule for tlre kids and anotirer for yourself.


IT'S A BARGAIN...

We like to feel we are buying wisely, getting a bargain. Some of the cleverest ways prices are obscured in a supermarket are described by an American woman: ‘I have to be a mathematician to figure out if it would be cheaper to buy two packages for the pnce of one; to buy one package at the full price but use my 25c-off coupon; or to buy one package at the full price and use the boxtop entry blank to enter a contest where I may win my height in silver dollars.’

Tips: Check that you really want the item on offer. Make sure you know the real price you pay by taking your calculator with you. And remember that many of the tricks rely on you forgetting to bring in the money-off coupon or boxtop.


WRAPPING IT UP

What we buy is sheathed, squeezed or moulded by a variety of materials from tin to plastic, paper and aerosol cans. Current British expenditure on packaging stands at £3.5 billion pa. About 20 per cent of the price you pay for packaged goods goes on wrapping and it is far more for items like cosmetics. Packaging is no longer just used to protect goods or keep them fresh - it has to sell the product too.

Tips: Look for goods which are not unnecessarily packaged Support stores which sell goods loose and who use paper or cellophane bags (cellophane is a biodegradable product). Keep plastic ice-cream tubs and bottles for storage or pass them to local playgroups/schools. Don’t use aerosol cans. They add to the cost of your purchase (about 15p/15c) and their use is believed to destroy the protective ozone layer around the earth.


WHERE’S THE BREAD?

Supermarket layout is calculated to make you spend more. Basic items Ike bread are usually shelved in a far distant coriier, only accessible after you have walked through aisles of irresist I blewares. Best value goods are often hard to find, located on the highest or lowest shelf or poorly lit. Sweets are lined up by the checkout to tempt you or your children while you queue. Switching product locations sends you to the customary spot for peanut butter only to find cakes there this week instead. That small confusion may be enough for you to buy cakes as well.

Tips: Make a list of what you need and keep to it. Buy as much fresh food as you can and prepare it yourself The shop’s own brands may be cheaper but watch out for use of additives in them. Support your local shop.


TAKING THE WAITING OUT OF WANTING

Reshaping public attitudes to debt has been a triumph for the advertising agencies and credit firms, making borrowing both ‘moral and fun’, Borrowers are now encouraged to feel that taking a loan is a forward-looking step. Credit cards are today’s magic wands. They serve as money even when you don’t have any and so become symbols of power. People are generally afraid of committing large sums of money. Buying on hire purchase avoids the finality of taking a momentous decision. After all, you’re only paying a little now - even though the total amount you pay will be higher if you use credit.

Tips: Use cash where possible as that way it is harder to delude yourself about how much you are spending. lf you do use credit, make sure that you know what the annual interest rate is - two and a half per cent a month sounds harmless, but 30 per cent a year is frightening. Shop around for the best terms. Is it cheaper to get the money from somewhere else?


ROOM FOR ONE MORE

Persuading us to buy more of the same thing is a successful way to boost consumption. Tied up with the concept is that ‘more’ is better. A Revlon cosmetics spokesman attributes the company’s success in part to the way it has ‘taught women to match their nail enamel to their mood and occasions, so that they bought more. Wristwatches and spectacles are now sold in an array of colours to go with our clothes, as fashion accessories. A second car according to Chevrolet adverts releases us from ‘one-car captivity’. The ultimate ‘more’ is the second home - ‘every family should have one’. heralding ‘a new age of consumption for household equipment'.

Tips: Things like wristwatches and spectacles are now faidy cheap so some will think it’s justifiable to treat these as fashion items. But fashion in itself is all part of planned obsolescence. So think twice before swallowing this hook.


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