This ad (to the right) is highly “incorrect” in modern consumer culture.
But that wasn’t the case 50+ years ago. Although it wasn’t her intention, Christine Frederick is responsible for this gradual change in culture (and advertising).
Christine Frederick was a home economist, editor of multiple papers and an advertising research expert who specialized in WOMEN.
She put most of her big ideas in a book called Selling Mrs. Consumer (you can read it here).
Selling Mrs Consumer
Selling Mrs. Consumer was Christine Frederick’s magnum opus after 10+ years of work conducting consumer research about the average US woman.
In the book, Frederick paints a picture of the average American woman (Mrs. Consumer) in 1929. She also points out flaws of contemporary advertising and describes what advertising towards women SHOULD look like.
[Translation: She found a bunch of actionable ways to sell more stuff to women.]
Almost no one today knows who Christine Frederick is, but her impact on advertising, marketing, capitalism and consumerism is unmistakable.
She was one of the first–if not THE first–to understand (and write about) the huge untapped potential represented by women in a consumer society. She also pointed out little-known contemporary trends such as that:
- The husband may earn the money, but it is generally Mrs. Consumer who spends it.
- Mrs. Consumer enjoys advertising in women’s magazines because it satisfies her curiosity of keeping up with recent trends (why women read Elle magazine or airline magazines, when both contain 10 % content and 90 % ads).
- Even if the husband likes a car he will not buy it unless Mrs. Consumer also likes it (when this insight caught on, car manufacturers started making more colorful models and advertised them in women’s magazines, so that when men who took their wives shopping, the wife would recognize the car and want him to buy it).
Frederick believed that contemporary advertising towards women was too advanced, logical, and boring. She recommended that companies go with the magic pill (marketing) strategy instead:
We women don’t consciously follow advertising in order to make great basic changes. We think in short cycles, not long cycles; of today rather than of tomorrow. . . The object of every consumer, is to get the greatest value for my money with the least expenditure of time and effort.
Today’s female ads are simpler and less mentally straining. No need to read.
Frederick believed women had adapted themselves to advertising in a different way than men:
This attitude of ours toward advertising is unconscious. We [women] inhale advertising as we breathe in air–and exhale unconsciously that part of it which is without interest. . .
We women simply adapt ourselves to an advertising age as men adapt themselves to a machine age.
And she thought advertising was character-building in a positive way:
Not only has it [advertising] by force of example made a bath in a porcelain tub and a brushing of our teeth national, daily rites, but it is performing the task that the churches have long given up–it is strengthening our characters. I am really serious. Advertising is truly forcing us to develop strength of will to resist its alluring temptations to buy articles which we do not need.
Christine Frederick and Progressive Obsolescence
Her second biggest impact on modern consumer culture was the idea of progressive obsolescence:
What is “progressive obsolescence?” It is a somewhat pompous phrase, let us take it apart. These are its characteristics:
(1) A state of mind which is highly suggestible and open; eager and willing to take hold of anything new either in the shape of a new invention or new designs or styles or ways of living.
(2) A readiness to “scrap” or lay aside an article before its natural life or usefulness is completed, in order to make way for the newer and better thing.
(3) A willingness to apply a very large share of one’s income, even if it pinches savings, to the acquisition of new goods or services or way of living.
Basically, buy stuff even if you don’t need it.
Frederick believed that the reason why the U.S had prospered so quickly relative to other countries was because its citizens practiced progressive obsolescence to a higher extent. The American family may buy and sell several houses, while, for example, the British family typically stays in the house it inherits from past generations.
We have more because we spend more–this is our American Paradox.
The consumer habits of the American and the British contrast in more categories than just buying houses. Americans buy low quality products often, Europeans buy seldom, but will buy quality products that LAST.
Or well, they did 80 years ago. . .
Today, the progressive obsolescence of the U.S is a global phenomenon.
During 1910-40(ish), most companies sold products based on NEED only (Bernays’s idea of “old salesmanship”). If you already had a toy in working condition you didn’t need a new one.
Today, companies sell products based on desires and aspirations. You’re TRAINED–(conditioned by consumer society)–to think that you NEED the new product. Even when you already have (an “old”) model that works.
Frederick believed that progressive obsolescence was not only good for the progress of the nation, but also as a “philosophy” of happiness (for women):
. . . in an industrial era Mrs. Consumer is happiest and best served if she consumes goods at the same approximate rate of change and improvement that science and art and machinery can make possible.
And she reasoned that:
if designers and weavers and inventors of rapid machinery make it possible to choose a new pattern of necktie or dress every few weeks, and there is human pleasure in wearing them, why be an old frump and cling to an old necktie or old dress until it wears through?
The 3 Phases of Progressive Obsolescence
Frederick described 3 phases of progressive obsolescence, in order of severity:
1) Keeping up with technical and scientific advance
Example: buying a new radio because its sound quality has improved thanks to some technical innovation.
2) The practical or coordinative phase
Example: buying a new radio at the same time you buy a new desk or a new telephone. Convenience plays a part in the decision (like buying in bulk).
3) The aesthetic phase
Example: buying a new radio just because it looks good, fits the house decor, or because it is a “popular” thing to do (like Bernays’s piano room).
Big corporations came to sympathize with Frederick’s “philosophy of obsolescence”. But they were too impatient to wait for consumers to get on-board with it, so they took it upon themselves to speed things up.
They created PLANNED obsolescence. . .
After WW2 was over, the winning countries kept their industrial plants while the losing countries (whose factories and product equipment got destroyed) had to build new ones .
Though expensive, this turned out to be a good thing for the losing countries, over the long-term.
Countries like Germany, Italy and Japan started using new and improved industrial technology whereas the U.S kept using its OLD industrial plants (change only happens when it MUST happen).
Buckminster Fuller discusses this in Critical Path:
That was the beginning of the end for the U.S.A.’s prestige as the world’s technological leader. The U.S.A. post-World War II cars were inherently seven years passe in contrast to the smaller, faster foreign cars. The “Big Three” American auto producers undertook to manufacture while keeping the foreign cars off the market and while they themselves exploited America’s market need for a geographically expanding economy’s transportation.
Not only did these large car companies keep superior cars out of the U.S, they also started using methods of planned obsolescence.
They intentionally created cars with inferior parts that broke down after a predetermined period of time.
It was not until the late 60s and 70s, when higher quality foreign cars finally entered the U.S market, that American car companies were FORCED to start creating higher quality automobiles.
Forced by its competition.
You and I did not suffer the direct impact of this as we were not American car prospects during the 60s or 70s. But the METHODS behind what went down are still around in modern consumer society.
Only today they are put to use in more subtle and sophisticated ways.
If a big company can find some way of forcing you to buy their newest product model, even when you have the second newest model already, they will take it (as long as they are in a position to get away with it).
The movie Fight Club is arguably one of the best-known examples of planned obsolescence in popular culture. Maybe you know some other examples?
Progressive Obsolescence Today
Conditioning its population for progressive obsolescence may have been a serious prerogative for the U.S in keeping its economy alive during the Great Depression. But what about today?
Today, progressive obsolescence is so deeply ingrained into popular culture that it cannot be gotten rid of, like Edward Bernays’s fluoridation of the public drinking water.
Progressive obsolescence is also one of the biggest forces of resistance against environmentalism.
Christine Frederick would be proud to see the hordes of shopaholic women that ROMP around the average mall.
Although women make for the best consumers, as they have an instinctual “love for change,” and therefore are most receptive to different methods of progressive obsolescence. . .
. . . Modern MEN around the world are following suit at an alarming pace.
“Men” all around the world worry whether they will look “respectable enough” if they do not wear a designer watch, or have a big TV in their living room.
They are confused consumers.
In 1970, 3% of Americans considered owning a second TV as a necessity. In 2000, the corresponding number had grown to 75%!
This doesn’t necessarily mean that people have gotten 20 times as materialistic, but it’s tempting to draw that conclusion.
Consumer culture and different methods of progressive obsolescence are increasing people’s PERCEIVED basic needs.
The cultural (popular) consumption of trendy clothing and entertainment technology are examples of progressive obsolescence made possible due to the consenting masses of confused consumers–so that they can, temporarily, quell their misery and discontent through consumption.
Is Society Becoming More Feminine?
Many people think so.
I don’t disagree.
I believe the advertising industry and consumer culture has played a big part in making this happen.
All successful advertising campaigns are based on a fundamental truth.
Otherwise they would not result in long-term use (more on this in part 3).
One such truth is that women are better consumers than men are.
Women enjoy buying things more than men do.
Women are also “trend-setters” when it comes to consumption. They are more psychologically motivated than men are to become early adopters (and buy flashy new products).
ADVERTISING–and therefore much of popular consumer culture–is skewed towards things that appeal to female psychology.
The problem is that the average man does not know this. He is socially conditioned to believe in fairy tales and magic pills; that he can become happy, popular, and successful by buying the “right” stuff.
But only if he has the latest and greatest stuff.
Progressive obsolescence is hard at work.