Less is more - reducing product features as marketing
Oh for the simple days of consumerism. It always used to be more, more, more. It was this "plus" that. It was such and such "with added" something else. It was added ingredients, added benefits, added protection. You knew where you were, you knew what to do, you looked for the product with more of everything and bought it.
But now the marketers are learning to subtract. James Dyson makes bagless vacuum cleaners. Muji's clothing and stationery depends on studied anonymity for its appeal, brandlessness is its chief brand value. Daewoo sells cars without showrooms. First Direct offers banking without banks. No-frills airlines are all the rage. The slogan could be: "Travel. With wings." But it isn't. They prefer to accentuate the negative.
Could this be more than a marketing gimmick? Are we witnessing the repentance of the affluent society? Not so fast. Taking something away is simply another way to create the marketer's most revered of additions, added value. Nor is it a new thing. Recent films have given subtractive chic a boost: Clueless, Sleepless in Seattle. But fashion may be where it began. Dresses may be backless or strapless. The -less suffix carries with it the memory of daring removal, like the entropy-defying extraction of the penultimate stick in a game of spillikins. And this magic of the apparent absence of human technology goes way back. Was not Christ's garment seamless?
Applied to people rather than their creations, the suffix is understood to mean disfigurement, dismemberment, amputation. One may be literally hairless or legless. Metaphorically, one may be heartless or spineless. Its derivation is from "loss", and is different from that of the word "less" used as a comparative. It's clearer in German, where both word and suffix, los and -los, convey a sense of removal and absence. "Was ist los?" ("What's up?") literally means "What is missing?"
In advertising jargon, therefore, -less is not -free; -less indicates that something has been removed, -free that it was never there. I recall writing about the introduction of lead-free petrol in Britain a decade ago and hearing a PR man explain that the reason the new fuel was at that time more expensive than leaded petrol was that the poor oil companies had to bear the cost of taking out the lead. I never decided whether he was especially cunning or just especially gullible. Anyway, if this were true, lead-free petrol would have been called lead-less.
This is why it is mainly in foods where one finds -free is used in preference to -less. Plenty of foods have additives or have had constituents removed. But still the phrase, "Nothing added, nothing taken away" is used to imply natural goodness. So it is that foods are advertised as fat-free or sugar-free, not fatless or sugarless. The terminology is meant to reassure us that nature has not been tampered with too much. Admittedly there are boneless chicken breasts, but if they could, you know they'd breed chickens that were bone-free, too. (And if we dare to say these things are flavourless, that is revealing, too, exposing our conviction that flavour, present once, has been removed by some white-coated force majeure.)
But in artefacts it's the taking away that adds value, not the suggestion that some offending substance was never there. The -less suffix even has the power to induce mutation of the words it infects. Wireless telegraphy quickly caught on as terminology as well as technology in the 1890s. In less than a decade the adjective had become a noun: the wireless. After a century of technological progress, it is surprising that more modern examples of this transformation do not come to mind. It should be possible to speculate on improvements that might result if various impedimenta were stripped away from familiar products, elements that may, like wires, appear essential for their function, but which add nothing to their visual quiddity.
In another kind of thought experiment, one can try out the language as a test of likelihood. Futurists speak of the paperless office and the cashless society. But look at the subtrahends. Paper and cash are two of civilisation's great achievements. We will never be without them. Meanwhile, the cordless phone or kettle is never just "the cordless". We're not that fond of them yet. Besides, they lack the element of magic that carries the day for the wireless, the magic of disembodied voices that can fill a room without even having to be squeezed down a wire. New cordless products seem sadly ordinary in comparison, still tethered, even if invisibly, to their rests and bases in the way that a portable radio is not; they are unable to stray far, unable to soar, they remain tagged offenders in the home. They do not speak to us.