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The idea of built-in obsolescence comes as no surprise. But behind the apparent naivety of Jacques Peretti’s presenting style, BBC2’s The Men Who Made Us Spend (Saturday 9pm) contains some revelations. The idea of deliberately limiting the life of manufactured goods was not some evolutionary commercial development arrived at separately by different businesses but the result of a treaty signed by large companies in Geneva in 1924. It started with lightbulbs. The Berlin-based Osram had the idea – lightbulb moment? – of cutting the average bulb’s life from 2,500 hours to 1,000. Other companies concurred. The cartel even stipulated fines for lights that shone too long.
The philosophy still applies. Peretti challenges various industrial lions, or their sometimes edgy spokesmen – Ikea, Apple, Swatch – and notes how some practices approach the legally dubious. He meets consumer crusaders campaigning for more openness who reveal the tricks of high-tech products, notably the printer cartridge whose limit of 50,000 pages is purely arbitrary.
The consumer provides the paradox. Peretti’s film, the first of three, shows how postwar consumerism has been everything from a religion to a spur to political unrest. Forget left-right ideology: Edward Heath was toppled when higher prices snatched a briefly sampled Utopia from the masses. Forget class war: the 2011 riots in the UK (prime targets: mobile phones) were a shoppers’ rebellion. Design, fashion, economics and politics coincided with the idea of consumer sovereignty, pioneered by free-market fanatic Antony Fisher who brought battery chicken-farming to a Britain “slipping into socialism” and helped found the Institute of Economic Affairs.
The film reveals the ambiguities of consumerism, which takes instant gratification for granted. The other programmes in the series concern the psychology of selling, especially through fear, and how advertising targeted at children can be applied to their elders.