Trained to Consume and Upgrade

That new purchase got you down? An expert in the field says it’s all part of the marketing plan


“Consumer satisfaction has suffered as a result, and product disappointment typically happens in hours or days instead of years.”
Professor William Gribbons, director of Bentley University’s User Experience Graduate Program

It’s safe to say that most if not all consumers of electronic devices have a box of discarded phone cases and chargers, or tablet folios, sitting somewhere in their homes. I do, and one day I was pawing futilely through these castaways to see if any of them could be “repurposed,” as they say.

As I stared down into my pile, an unsettling realization kicked in. This stuff, perhaps hundreds of dollars worth, is still in great shape. Heck, I thought, it even smells new. I still have some of the packages and boxes it came in. But it’s detritus now; completely useless. As any consumer knows, accessories purchased for one model phone or tablet don’t fit or work with the upgrades that as consumers and technology enthusiasts we have to have.

And so the stuff sits there, a rude reminder of 1) the hard-earned, gone-forever cash shelled out to acquire it all, and 2) the titanic wastefulness embodied in our unslakable yearning to own the latest and greatest stuff.

I was reminded of a recent television commercial in which a woman buys what she thinks is the newest, quickest, best tablet only to get leveled by an advertisement for the “much-improved” upgrade right after leaving the store. Elated, then crushed, she cries, “I just got this one.”

These observations left me wanting to know what had turned us all into purchase zombies – what was behind our endless quest to own the best and the fastest and the newest stuff. Since I was working as a senior publicist at an absolutely outstanding university, Bentley, and looking for story ideas, I got in touch with a great source, Professor Bill Gribbons, director of the Waltham, Mass., school’s User Experience Graduate Program.

Here is what he had to say.

The speed at which consumers become disappointed with purchases – from cell phones to automobiles – has been accelerating dramatically in recent years as manufacturers race to innovate and push obsolete-by-design products into the marketplace.

“Nothing is sustainable for the long-term,” says Gribbons.

“There is a pull created by industry,” he adds. “The demand of the marketplace today is that things have to keep constantly changing.”

Consumer satisfaction has suffered as a result, and product disappointment typically happens in hours or days instead of years.

That reaction has served to fuel a national compulsion on the part of consumers to chase newer, sleeker models just to keep up with questionable product upgrades. Manufacturing and marketing initiatives are being built entirely around creating and managing this neediness.

Gribbons, founder of Bentley’s Design and User Experience Center, said this “continuous innovation” dynamic isn’t brand new; its roots date back to perhaps 1980 and the rise of ever-changing computer software packages.

“But the question we’re faced with now,” he says, is, ‘can we keep this up economically and environmentally?’”

Gribbons is among those who voice concern over the exploitation and depletion of rare earth, raw materials that are used in smartphones and other tech devices, such as yttrium or lanthanum. And he wonders if recycling or disposal of cell phones and other tech devices on a massive scale can be managed over the long-term.

“Clearly this new business ethos is good for, well, business,” says Gribbons. “But is it good for the overall economy and the earth?”

Gribbons addresses these and other sustainability issues as part of an innovation course he teaches in Bentley’s MBA program.