Are Knockoff Bags Helping To Sell The Real Thing?

Apparently, some people who buy counterfeit purses eventually migrate to buying the real thing. Here comes another round in the age-old "counterfeiting hurts sales" vs. "counterfeiting helps sales" argument.

Reports Slate:

A dirty little secret is that Prada rip-offs can also function as free advertising for real Prada handbags — partly by signaling the brand's popularity, but, less obviously, by creating what MIT marketing professor Renee Richardson Gosline has described as a "gateway" product. For her doctoral thesis, Gosline immersed herself in the counterfeit "purse parties" of upper-middle-class moms. She found that her subjects formed attachments to their phony Vuittons and came to crave the real thing when, inevitably, they found the stitches falling apart on their cheap knockoffs. Within a couple of years, more than half of the women — many of whom had never fancied themselves consumers of $1,300 purses — abandoned their counterfeits for authentic items.

This result is intriguing, if counter-intuitive. I would have hypothesized that at least as many consumers of counterfeit luxury goods would, once they realized they had acquired a decent-enough fake to fool the average on-looker, would feel embarrassed that they'd ever considered spending thirteen-hundred freaking dollars on a bag to carry their phone and keys and tampons around in. Then again, the people Gosline studied had acquired their counterfeit bags at purse parties; at least a few members of their social group knew for a fact that the handbag in question was a fake. Perhaps they ended up buying real ones partly out of affinity for the brand, and partly because there's nothing sadder on God's green earth than a known-to-be fake designer handbag? (I say nothing sadder because, one, human susceptibility to branding always is, and two, child labor is always a downer: "I remember walking into an assembly plant in Thailand a couple of years ago and seeing six or seven little children, all under 10 years old, sitting on the floor assembling counterfeit leather handbags. The owners had broken the children's legs and tied the lower leg to the thigh so the bones wouldn't mend. [They] did it because the children said they wanted to go outside and play.")

I kind of hate how academic studies of counterfeit goods always seem to focus on parsing either the psychology of their consumers or the macro-economic effects of the trade, on quantifying — or disputing other academics' quantifications of — the exact losses to luxury brands and the authorities (in the form of tax revenue) that counterfeiting causes, or doesn't cause. Counterfeiting isn't a crime because the folks at Hermès, a company which makes its money selling $600 scarves and $6,000 purses, really need another quarter of 26% sales increases and some people in China are threatening their bottom line. To regard every counterfeit item sold as a direct loss to an established company, as some luxury brands argue, is ludicrous. Counterfeiting is a crime because, yes, theft of intellectual property is actually wrong; but it's also a crime because the production of counterfeit goods generally takes place under atrocious circumstances — even by the standards of the international rag trade, a domain not known for its commitment to worker safety and environmental protection — and because the people who produce, smuggle, and sell counterfeit goods are often the same criminal gangs that control the drug trade and human trafficking. I don't need to know whether some suburban housewife somewhere feels bad about her fake Louis Vuitton bag, and if so, why she feels that way, to know that the trade in counterfeit goods is pretty much evil and that the people who deal in them deserve to be punished to the full extent of the law.