Tailfins, beetles, advertisements and counterculture; planned obsolescence in the 1950s and 1960s

The text of this post is excerpted from the chapter ‘The fifties and sixties’ in the book Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescense in America’ by Giles Slade.

In a 1958 interview, Brooks Stevens gave the corporate position on planned obsolescence: “Our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence and everyone who can read without moving his lips should know it by now. We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make those products old fashioned, out of date, obsolete. We do that for the soundest reason: to make money.”

A 1950s style drawing with a happy couple sitting in a shiny blue convertible with tailfins. Three people stand looking at the the car appreciatively. At the top it says 'The Cadillac Eldorado' in fancy text.
An advertisement for the 1953 Cadillac Eldorado. Image source: plan59.com.

Inspired by the P-38 Lightning Fighter Plane, tailfins were first introduced on the 1948 Cadillac. General Motors’ Head of Design Harley Earl did not like fins at first and ordered them removed from the 1949 Cadillac, only to reverse himself suddenly when consumer studies indicated the public loved them. Like their spiritual predecessors – the curled toes on medieval aristocrats’ shoes – tailfins grew progressively more exaggerated in the models that followed. In the fall of 1952 GM debuted its 1953 Cadillac Eldorado in a stylish limited edition with a wraparound windshield, a distinctive bumper (including busty “Dagmars”), and enlarged tailfins. During his Inauguration Day Parade in Washington D.C., Eisenhower himself was driven in a 1953 Alpine White Eldorado convertible. With tailfins now the fashion, other automakers quickly followed suit.

Black and white photo of a large white convertible with tailfins and an American flag on the  front. A man stands in the passenger seat with a raised hand, and a crowd of people cheer.
Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower wave to the crowds at the 1953 Inaugural Parade Procession. Source: eisenhower.archives.gov. Public Domain

New voices began to challenge the wisdom of waste and the practice of discarding still usable products. When Vance Packard wrote ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ in 1957, it turned out to be a runaway success. ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ examined the claim that scientific advertising (then called motivational research) was essential to America’s economic health. Packard’s experience writing for magazines allowed him to produce an entertaining and highly readable description of why advertisers needed to create planned or psychological obsolescence: “One big and intimidating obstacle… was the fact that most Americans already possessed perfectly usable stoves, cars, TV sets, clothes, etc. Waiting for these products to wear out or become physically obsolete before urging replacements upon the owner was intolerable. More and more, ad men began talking about the desirability of creating ‘psychological obsolescence’.”

At the appearance of ‘The Hidden Persuaders’, as America fell into recession, the debate over planned obsolescence exploded into a national controversy. Packard followed up seventeen months later with another book: ‘The Waste Makers’. Packard saw the hypermaterialism of American consumer culture as a compensation offered by successful capitalists to the middle and lower classes, whose postindustrial jobs were becoming increasingly meaningless. Motivated by greed born of advertising, Americans conspired with market researchers to transform themselves into “voracious, wasteful, compulsive consumers”. Response to the book from the business community was immediate and hostile – a fact that delighted both Packard and his publisher.

In the year that tailfins reached their peak of extravagance, the Volkswagen represented a sensible lack of pretense and a return to the same no-nonsense practicality that had put America on top before Sputnik. As early as 1956, ‘Road and Track’ magazine had marveled at the little car’s ability to gain “an unmistakable wheel-hold in the garages and hearts of the American car-buying public… the Volkswagen fills a need which Detroit had forgotten existed – a need for a car that is cheap to buy and run, small and maneuverable yet solidly constructed… utterly dependable and trouble free.”

Early Volkswagen ads used un-doctored photographs and ran single-message ad captions like: “It won’t drive you to the poor house,” “Don’t let the low price scare you off,” or the completely subversive “Live below your means”. Their success was palpable.

A black and white magazine advert with a photo of a Volkswagen Beetle car, and the tagline 'Live below your means'. There is some more text that is too small to read.
A vintage Volkswagen advertisement. Source: ajcard.wordpress.com.

As the campaign for Volkswagen evolved, it fell right in with the emerging cultural idiom of cool and hip. Planned obsolescence soon became one of the prime targets of this idiom. Bill Bernbach, master advertising strategist, solved the problem of over-production and under-consumption by encouraging Americans to buy their product as an expression of their rejection of consumerism. In 1961 a now-famous ad ran a photograph of a VW beetle lit by several spotlights, with a caption that introduced readers to “The ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58, ’59, ’60, and ’61 Volkswagen.” The point was obvious: Volkswagen did not make superficial model changes.

A black and white magazine advert: there are 15 identical pictures of a car (a Volkwagen Beetle). The cars are labelled '1949', '1950', '1951' etc. up to '1963'. The tagline at the bottom says: 'The Volkswagen Theory of Evolution'. Below there is some text that is too small to read.
A vintage Volkswagen advertisement. Source: ajcard.wordpress.com

Following the Volkswagen campaign, for a while, Americans bought fewer goods to keep up with the Joneses. Increasing numbers of Americans bought products like Volkswagen and, later, much more expensive Volvos “to demonstrate that they were wise to the game” and ironically “to express their revulsion with the artifice and conformity of consumerism”. In this way, Madison Avenue cleverly made the values of the counterculture accessible and acceptable to middle America, and then pressed them into the service of consumerism.