In 2008, MIT Professor Dan Ariely got an unexpected thank-you for presenting at a conference: a Prada bag. Carrying the bag made him feel different. Special, even. So he decided to study branding and behavior.
In one of his studies, half of the 250 subjects were told that the designer glasses they were wearing were "real," while the other half were told they were wearing "counterfeits." They were told to do a number of tasks that seemed to be related to the glasses, like evaluating scenery. But tucked into the sequence was a math test. Researchers found that 60 percent of those who were wearing "counterfeit" glasses cheated, while only 20 percent of those wearing "real" glasses cheated.
Study participants also were given a financial incentive to lie about the location of circles in a series of visual puzzles — and those with the "fake" glasses lied both sooner and more often.
The Times draws the conclusion that buying counterfeit goods has a discernible corrosive effect on an individual's morality — that, in effect, wearing an item you know to be fake is like kryptonite for your sense of right and wrong. But can it really be that simple?
I don't question that wearing branded or luxury items makes us feel a certain way: maybe smarter, perhaps more put-together, more attractive, possibly more comfortable. Some of that is the result of thoughtful design — a fabric with a superior hand against your skin, a more flattering cut greeting your glances in the mirror, a better quality of embellishment, hand-sewn details, a secret silk lining in a daring color only you know about. But a great part of our emotional reaction to brands is the sole result of calculated marketing decisions and the tide of logo-infected imagery that's washed over us all since birth. (Which conditioned response is, weirdly enough, what Ariely's study considers "real.")
Ariely also seems to have lacked a control group. No research subjects were asked to complete the honesty-testing tasks while wearing sunglasses whose brand-status was not stated, or while wearing no sunglasses at all. Having essentially no baseline for comparison makes the results suspect; unless we know how often "average" people will cheat at mathematics or lie for low-stakes financial gain under identical conditions, there's no real way to know if people wearing branded items they believe to be counterfeit or real lie and cheat more or less often.
But most importantly, in real life people are not randomly assigned authentic or copied goods — they choose to buy them. And what motivates those choices more than wealth? The segment of the population who can actually choose to buy a real Birkin (price range lower limit: $6000, according to a Forbes article from last August that quotes a luxury goods marketeer thus: "People want to spend their money on frivolous things") is vanishingly small. The market for the $100 Chinatown version is increasingly well-stocked. How utterly insulting that a study should come along effectively to congratulate the tiny segment of the population who can afford authentic luxury items on being not only more financially successful than the rest of us, but more moral. Except I'm pretty sure Bernie Madoff's Cartier wristwatches were real.
This isn't to say that counterfeiting is a business worth supporting. It's a wretched concern for any number of reasons. In addition to the obvious wrong of stealing someone else's intellectual property, it defrauds the nation of tax revenue, and large-scale counterfeiting rings are often involved in drug smuggling and other, more serious forms of organized crime. Designer copies are also frequently made by child laborers in sweatshop conditions. But do we really need to be told — by a researcher who presented his findings at a conference sponsored by no less an interested party than Harper's Bazaar — that carrying a bag we know to be cheap tat made in lamentable conditions will make us cheat and deceive those around us?
Ariely gave the thank-you Prada bag to his mother. But, like so many of us, once he'd known that special feeling of owning something "genuine" and "real" (whether or not what that mainly means is merely really, really expensive), he couldn't stop. Ariely bought a Mont Blanc pen. (Starting price: in the hundreds.)
"When I take it out and I start writing, I have this objective feeling that my thoughts are clearer. My handwriting is clearer," he says. "The truth is — I didn't anticipate it — when I take this pen, there is a special feeling."
After a lifetime lived without "fashion products," a conference sponsored by a leading ladymag ruined the good professor for anything else. If there's a lesson in that, it's not that fakes are only bought by sneaky cheating crass folk, and the real deal is always carried by upstanding citizens.
[Image via Flickr user Janoid]
World's Most Extravagant Handbags [Forbes]