Consequences of planned obsolescence for consumer culture and the promotional self

Analyzing ads

Essay, 2004

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents


Consumer Culture
The History of Consumer Culture
The Role of Advertising in a capitalist Consumer Culture

How to analyze Ads

Consequences of planned Obsolescence
Advertising creates new Needs constantly
Advertisements praise the New to be better than the Old
Convincing consumers of the indispensable Possession of a Product
Products and images
Strategies to deal with obsolescence



Appendix: Ads

List of Figures

Ad 1: AYDS diet pills (1969)

Ad 2: Microsoft Windows (1990)

Ad 3: GANT

Ad 4: Nike (1993)

Ad 5: US Army (1994)


During the 20th century, the industrialised countries have developed an extensive amount of obsolescence. According to the Website “Volunteer Now!” it has become clear that nations in the developed world over-consume, while the poor in the developing world pay the price of our increased consumption with their lowered standards of living and increasing environmental damage[1].

A quite evident example for planned obsolescence can be found among the sound and video storage medium industry. The DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) was introduced in the end of the 1990s to replace old, analogue video recording systems such as VHS and Betacam, although development divisions had already designed a new standard for this medium.[2] An arguable point is, that the new blue laser DVD or DivX technology has not been introduced yet because the major manufacturers want to sell their old products first and want to be one step ahead of the consumers. Apart from that, companies have tried to introduce new technologies, such as Sony and Philips' s Super Audio CD, DCC (Digital Compact Cassette) or the DAT (Digital Audio Tape) system for years for the purpose of inciting customers to replace their old recordings by ones of new standards (Terrel 1999).

However, planned obsolescence cannot only be found in storage medium standards. This essay is about how planned obsolescence emerged and which consequences it had and still has for consumer culture and the promotional self on a broader scale.

Consumer Culture

The History of Consumer Culture

Consumerism is nothing new. People need to consume resources, especially food and water to survive. The concept of needs explores the social relation between private life and public institutions (Slater, 1997: 2). Nevertheless, with the establishment of consumer culture during the 18th century, also obsolescence evolved. According to Slater, the 1920s was probably the first decade to proclaim a generalized ideology of affluence (Slater, 1997: p. 12). Economy changed from largely agricultural and artisanal modes of production to a predominantly industrial one (Leiss et al, 1997: 5). Although the want to consume was not new at all, this was the first point in history when industry was producing more goods than needed by society. According to Slater (Slater 1997: p.24-32), this development had seven key features:

1. society’s core values have been linked to consumption
2. social relations were shaped by the market
3. mass and impersonal relations of exchange emerged
4. freedom was privatised
5. the conviction that need and desire are normal and necessary was spread
6. Negotiation of identity and status
7. an increasing importance of culture

This development implicated an increase of obsolescence. Because industry was producing more than needed, ways had to be found to convince the consumer of buying a specific product. The function of consumer advertising was, and still is, to create demand among consumers to ensure that the goods produced in large numbers by mass production are bought in equally large numbers (Leiss et al 1997: p. 18).

The Role of Advertising in a capitalist Consumer Culture

To keep the industrial production running, people are enforced to consume as much as possible. In addition to that, the introduction of credit cards made it possible to encourage people to consume more than they can pay. For example, the website features offers on cars with no regard to the credit history[3]. The task of advertising is to stimulate a demand and build a bridge from mass production to mass consumption (Wernick, 1991: p. 33). The market is regulated by this creating of a demand (Slater, 1997: p. 26).

As Leiss points out, advertising reformulates the predispositions, hopes, and concerns of its audience to suit its own purposes, reconstituting meaning (Leiss et al, 1990: p. 200). Advertisements exaggerate reality and the elements of our ordinary lives. They make people buy more goods than is really necessary by creating false needs (Leiss et al, 1997: p. 17). According to Leiss, this leads ultimately to general feelings of dissatisfaction, which results in planned obsolescence (Leiss et al, 1997: p. 18).

How to analyze Ads

As Leiss points out, analyzing ads is not only about market behaviour, consumer choice, and social attitudes. When studying advertising as a system of social communication, the self-interested and conflicting actions of manufacturers become just one part of a larger totality (Leiss et al, 1990: p. 197).

There are various ways of analyzing ads. One of them is semiology or semiotics, referring back to Ferdinand De Saussure’s “the science of signs”. Linguists revert to this theory to explain language. In addition to that, it is very suitable to decode ads because it is sensitive to the nuances of more complicated messages structures (Leiss et al, 1990: p. 199). According to that, the meaning of an ad comes from the relationship between signifier, signified and referent. The signifier is the representation of meaning, the signified is the meaning itself. While the first one is concrete, the second one is abstract. In real life, signifier and signified merge and become inseparable (Leiss et al, 1990: p. 200). As Williamson puts it, the product must be given value by a person, because it has no initial meaning (Williamson 1978: p. 31). The cultural setting plays an important role for this process. If we see one of these typical television ads for a car, which is driving across an empty street in a desert, the car would be the signifier, freedom and independence would be the signified, and the car as a tool to gain freedom would be the sign. This ad works in industrialized countries because of our recognition and acceptance of the signified, in cultures with a different notion of a car it might not work. The signifier itself contains no meaning, it receives its significance only by the signified.


[1] Volunteer Now: ‘Consumerism – The Problem’ [Accessed 1.11.04]

[2] Bekins, R. (1997) The Life Cycle of DVD. [Accessed 11.11.2004]

[3] [Accessed 10/11/04]

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Consequences of planned obsolescence for consumer culture and the promotional self
Analyzing ads
University of Leicester  (Centre for Mass Communication Research)
Avertising, Culture and Communication
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
918 KB
Consequences, Culture, Communication, Mass Communication, Advertising, Obsolescence, Consumption, Consumerism, Identity, Werbung, Konsum
Quote paper
Christoph Behrends (Author), 2004, Consequences of planned obsolescence for consumer culture and the promotional self, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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