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Trendy Tailfins and iMacs

Eric J. Plosky

"Nah," an American Airlines executive will one day say to a Boeing representative. "We'll order the Airbus instead."

"Why?" the Boeing person will ask. "Our plane is bigger, has a greater range, and is cheaper to buy and operate."

"Yeah," the American executive will rejoin, pointing a finger at a picture of the Airbus, "but that plane looks faster."

What may one day happen to airplanes has already happened to most high-technology products style has become paramount. In these days of mature technology, when competing goods all have a full complement of desired features, checkbook-happy Americans are free to buy on the basis of looks, image and social cachet. Functionality has dwindled in importance and is no longer the primary consideration at purchase time (if, in fact, it ever was).

Apple's successful iMac provides a colorful illustration. Launched only last summer, the translucent, egg-shaped computer is already in the hands of a million customers, largely thanks to an advertising campaign that emphasized style over functionality. Now, Apple, aiming to continue the iMac's sales momentum, has released the machine in five different colors ("flavors"), and recent marketing has drawn attention to nothing else the computer's tech specs have just about been dismissed as unimportant.

That's because mainstream consumers aren't particularly interested in tech specs, not as long as the machine simply does what it's asked to do. Buyers seem to be taking for granted that iMacs can write letters, play games and access the Internet but why? Something must have convinced the masses of the machine's ability, and it couldn't have been Apple's own advertising. It is instead the general societal perception of personal computers as a maturing technology. Jane Q. Public feels reasonably assured that any computer she buys will meet her needs; different computers therefore compete mainly in style and price, not features, and the iMac sells precisely because it offers style over function.

The same maturation process visited automobiles beginning in the 1920s. Henry Ford was eventually forced to replace the Model T with the updated Model A because Ford lost its sales lead to Chevrolet, which introduced an innovation to the industry a stylish mainstream car. In later decades, marketing continued to appeal less to functionality and more to style, and 1990s auto advertising, at least within a given "class" of car (e.g., mid-size sedan), almost always puts style first.

None of Volkswagen's new ad campaigns, for instance, does anything other than portray the company's cars as trendy. Automobile features, and value for money, are generally mentioned only in ads for the cheapest cars, for which low profit margins provide manufacturers little incentive to increase style. The list of such examples is endless and will probably, given American consumer trends, continue to be endless.

Is it really so far fetched to imagine functional criteria being replaced by style in the aircraft industry, or in the space industry? "No," NASA might one day say to Lockheed, "I think we'll go with this other company's rocket theirs looks so cool!" If the same maturation happens in the space industry, why, given our evidence in other fields, wouldn't we expect exactly that dialogue?

Society somehow obliges us, as consumers, to stay stylish, to keep up with the Joneses. (This concept is the subject of another column.) We owe it to ourselves as citizens, though, to make sure that the goods we purchase meet our functional expectations. With so many technologies reaching a relatively mature state nowadays, with so many industries now free to ignore tech specs in favor of colors and flavors, we are especially vulnerable to a sort of parasitical advertising that can force us to pay more for style and style alone. Goods prices should rise only when new features are innovated, not just when fashions change.

Style sells, of course, and clever manufacturers sometimes change product designs solely to capitalize on people's thirst to remain current. The phrase "planned obsolescence" comes from the auto industry of the 1950s; carmakers plastered more and more chrome and higher and higher tailfins onto each year's models while leaving the cars' mechanicals the same, and style-conscious, functionality-ignorant suburbanites snapped them up at great cost.

We are very much in danger of another such scenario today. The maturation of many modern high-tech products, and the huge variety of goods available, causes many consumers' eyes to glaze over when it comes time to make a purchase. Confused consumers are easy prey for advertisers, who attempt to instill "brand consciousness" based on style in order to immediately resolve product confusion. That such advertising often causes consumers to pay more than they should is easily overlooked.

It shouldn't be. Consumers must educate themselves to make sure the computers and other high-tech goods they buy aren't unnecessarily laden with chrome; iMac buyers should make sure to choose that machine based on its functional suitability, not just on the height of its virtual tailfins. The typical American consumer of the next millennium, no matter how style-conscious, should keep an eye out for the filament, not just the flash, lest she go blind. I hope, at least as a first result of such education, that the next-generation space shuttle never has tailfins it doesn't need.