There are plenty of things we absolutely need. We need food. We need water. We need shelter. Heck, Maslow built a career on a hierarchy of needs that we absolutely must satisfy (with an order too!). Somewhere along the line, the massive marketing and advertising machine that is capitalism, our needs became converted and adjusted to fit the bottom line of some firm. Much like how the term “hero” is often overused (athletes aren’t heroes, first responders are), we often call something a “need” when in reality it’s a want.
Here are just four “needs” that really and truly are simply “wants:”
A 5-Bladed Vibrating Razor
Companies often feel as though they need to constantly innovate or be left behind. Cannibalize yourself or your competitors will. That’s probably the logic that led to one of the most ludicrous innovations in straight razor technology, vibration. The Gillette Fusion razor is a five-bladed razor that vibrates, effectively simulating an automatic shaver. The vibration does absolutely nothing, yet they have convinced many that this innovation is worth $9.99 (current price on Drugstore.com). It might be unfair to pick on Gillette but many razor companies rely on fancy innovations to try to win your business. While one could argue whether we actually “need” to shave, the fact is we don’t need a $10 razor ($15 for a refill 4-pack) to do it.
Adding more blades doesn’t really add much to the equation anymore either. When razors went from one blade to two, the incidence of cuts went down dramatically because the pressure per blade was halved. From two to three, the pressure was cut down by a third. From three to four, that’s only 25%. How many innovations do we have left and how much more are we willing to pay for a razor?
Stainless Steel Appliances
When the housing boom was in full force, THE thing every home must have was stainless steel appliances. The dishwasher, the range, the fridge, and even the microwave had to have that reflective sheen that screamed “modern.” It was partly style, partly preference, but hardly any substance because stainless steel meant absolutely nothing. None of the benefits of stainless steel really apply to the kitchen appliances. How often is your dishwasher subjected to ultra-high temperatures? Hopefully never. How often do you clean the exterior of your fridge? You probably wipe it down every once and a while (ours is covered in magnets and clippings, I haven’t wiped it down in three years). Stainless steel, outside of aesthetics, offers no appreciable benefit… unless you’re selling it.
The Swiss-Army-Knife of Cell Phones
Let’s take the basics of a cordless phone and pimp it out so hard that people would be willing to pay hundreds of dollars for them and sign up for service plans that will slowly extract thousands. When you get past the “cool factor” and technological beauty that make up today’s smartphones like the Apple iPhone and Blackberry (whatever), they all do the same thing as a phone that a telephone company would give to you for free.
Somewhere along the line, we became enamored with the fact that we could get a phone that take photos, capture video, send and receive text messages, surf the web, play games, and do all sorts of really cool things. Don’t get me wrong, I think the devices are absolutely wonderful… but how connected do you really need to be? On a recent trip to London, my wife and I had no cell phone and felt absolutely wonderful about it. No phone meant no work emails or work “emergencies” (that are never emergencies). While it also meant no maps or search, we fared perfectly well by asking complete strangers where the nearest tube station was. The phones certainly are nice… but we don’t need them.
900 Channels on Cable Television
In our “more is better” society, cable companies have learned that the quickest way into our wallets is by touting how many million channels they offer. The reality is that we watch very few of them. For the last week, we wrote down how many channels we watched and the answer was eight. We watched full shows on NBC (Heroes, Law & Order(s)), ABC (Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy), and FOX (House), and NFL Network (Thursday Night Football). And we popped in on TNT, Discovery Channel, CNBC, and History Channel. Of the hundreds of channels that we get through Verizon FiOS, we watched eight. Eight is probably about average too, sometimes we touch on a few more random channels (Food Network is always popular, we just didn’t catch any last week), but considering we have so many, isn’t it odd that we only watched 8?
It’s probably not that extraordinary and I suspect many people share our experience. We simply don’t watch a lot of television (some would say we watch too much!). I think that if we were to cut out cable television, we wouldn’t miss much. We could still catch most of our shows on the regular network’s websites or Hulu.com  (every 30 Rock episode I’ve ever seen was on Hulu.com). Another great online site for free television shows is Sling.com .
Can you think of any needs that are really just wants?