We all (hopefully!) know that ads are designed to get us to make purchases. But did you know that there’s a different, underlying mechanism in play that drives many of our buying decisions? It’s called the “itch cycle,” and it works in concert with advertising to drive our purchasing.

Here’s how the “itch cycle” works.

  • You buy a product. This could be anything from a set of dish towels to an iPhone to a new car.
  • A new version of that product comes out. For some products this is every decade, for other products it could be every month.
  • Marketing of the new product commences, sometimes attempting to create dissatisfaction with whatever it is you currently have.
  • You find that you’re dissatisfied with the current version for some reason, and it’s logical to think that the new version might solve it. That’s the “itch.”
  • You buy the new version, and the cycle repeats.

The ultimate driver of this cycle is in step #4 – dissatisfaction. But why do we get dissatisfied? Here are some of the most common reasons:

Wear and tear, or quality issues. Things wear out, get damaged, and fall apart. If a gallon of paint spills on your fancy work suit, you’re going to need the world’s best dry cleaner or a new suit. Or maybe you discover that your tools you use around the house are falling apart after you tried to use them at your startup auto shop. 

Other changing needs. There are times when your needs change, and the thing you have just isn’t suitable. No matter how much you and your wife love driving in your sports car, it’s probably not going to accommodate the twin babies you have on the way. 

Obsolescence. At a certain point, things just don’t work properly due to the fact that the world has moved on. This is particularly true with electronics. A 10-year-old computer probably isn’t getting software updates anymore, so if you need to work with people using the latest software you might need a new computer.

Style trends. If you’ve lived several decades, you’ve probably seen the coming and going of skinny jeans, baggy jeans, bell bottoms, taper fits, and just about everything else. If it’s important to you to be “trendy,” then societal perception could trigger the need for a new product.

Conditioning. This is probably one of the biggest ones, and most people ignore it. Remember back in the day when cell phones were a relatively-new thing? You probably got a new phone every two years. You’d get a phone, pay your bill for two years, then go in and pick out your next phone. Why? Because that’s when you got a new “free” phone, or a substantial discount on a non-free phone.

The cell phone companies have trained us to expect a new phone every two years, because the old one is “out of date.” Car companies have trained us to believe that “I need a safe, reliable car” means the same thing as “I need a new car.” Neither of those things are inherently true. iPhones from 2018 are still supported by Apple’s current software. And many people have reliable vehicles that are a decade old. These beliefs are the result of conditioning manipulating the itch cycle.

Companies can manipulate the itch cycle, but you can too. When you realize that a lot of your buying habits are conditioned, you can stop and actually think about whether or not that conditioning makes sense – and make a different choice. You might choose to buy the same thing, but less frequently. You might choose a more durable, long-lasting version of a product. 

You may like new stuff. No judgement from us. But if you’re frustrated and constantly asking “where does all of this stuff come from?”, a little bit of thinking about what actually drives your purchasing decisions may yield some surprising insights. And most importantly, it puts you back in control. 

Of course if you need somebody to haul off some of yesteryear’s “itchy” purchases, you know where to find us. Have a clutter-free, intentional day!

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