Dan Ariely, the author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, took a hard look at the business of counterfeit fashion and the negative ways it impacts the behavior of the people who wear it. In the first half of our interview with Ariely, we discuss fake fashion, why it presents such a particular problem for the fashion industry, and how if affects the people who wear it.
The High Low: A Prada executive recently said something along the lines of “we don’t want to be a brand nobody copies.” Does the flattery aspect diminish the degree to which counterfeits should be viewed as cheating?
Dan Ariely: I think that counterfeiting is an incredible problem for the fashion industry, and making light of it is counterproductive. There is some kind of wisdom in counterfeiting in some industries. Imagine if you had a software product like Microsoft Office. When people create illegal copies, the value of the product to you becomes higher, because now you can share the product with more people.
With fashion it’s the opposite in a couple ways. Say all off a sudden the prices of Porsche went down and everyone got one. Now, it would be less valuable as a fashion product. With fashion, you’re broadcasting to yourself and the world something about who you are. It’s different from Microsoft Office because it’s a signaling product, it tells who you are. You know the term ‘essentialism’? Fashion is about the internal attributes, the story, what the item tells you. When I have a Prada handbag, I think about lots of other things besides the leather and the stitching, and the story behind the brand is a part of that. When you own or see counterfeits, they don’t have the same story. It’s not about the designers, the art, or the meaning behind it.
When you look at a piece of art, knowing that it’s by Vermeer, for example, it changes how you think about the art. If it’s fake, the story is different. Again, it’s about the signaling value of the object. So if you see a bag and you are not sure if it is fake or not, you’re not sure if the story is true or not. If it’s a fake, the story is fake too, which makes the product and the person wearing it much less appealing.
HL: At the beginning of your chapter on fakes, you reference Renaissance Europe’s commitment to sartorial rules to distinguish between the classes. It wasn’t just a matter of cheating or hiding an identity, it was also about ambition. How, today, would you label someone wearing fakes as part of a ploy to get ahead – are they ultimately just a cheater, or is the act more forgivable?
DA: I think in many areas of life we have shades of gray. I think for most people the intuitive definition of a cheater would not include someone wearing fakes. It’s this lax definition propelling the issue forward — but it needs to be a decision that is more in the moral domain. Think about illegal downloads. When I ask my students, almost 100% download illegally. When I ask how many would be embarrassed if someone found out, if The New York Times published it, no one said they would be embarrassed.
That’s the problem — people wouldn’t be embarrassed. As long as people feel embarrassed, there’s something good, because it holds us back. When they don’t, it’s basically over, and it’s incredibly hard to fight and curb. In this regard, I think it’s incredibly important for the industry to restore the idea that people should feel bad about counterfeit fashion. Without that, we’re going to be in a very difficult position.
They’re missing here, but Ariely cites dress codes mandating striped hoods that applied to prostitutes in medieval Europe. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
HL: The rational economic theory says people don’t need to think about society, and consider only their own benefit?
DA: Yes, from a rational perspective it’s only the costs and benefits. ‘What do I get and what can I lose? I get this great product, and it’s a great deal.’ In that case, you should basically get counterfeits every time you can. Why wouldn’t you?
HL: With luxury goods doing healthy business despite a global recession, what do you make of the effect — or lack thereof — of an equally booming counterfeit business? In your book you present the idea that the bottom affects the top — if too many people buy cheap knockoff goods, even some buyers who could afford the real thing will be moved to buy the fake, instead. Is it possible that this is playing out less than expected?
DA: I suspect that it’s location specific. My experience in Taiwan has been that it’s almost all counterfeit. I think in the U.S. there are some people who still hold the opinion that the real goods are better and that fake is a different category. The question is, how long will that sustain? There are some categories that people have lost for good, like downloads. Do you think the fashion industry is going to be immune to that problem forever? I don’t think so. It’s definitely going in the wrong direction. I don’t think the fashion industry should rest. They should look at this as a real potential danger and think about what they could do about it.
HL: Your research showed that wearing counterfeit products made people more likely to cheat elsewhere — have you done any more studies related to this that you can tell us about? Anything coming up?
DA: We did that one study where women wear what they think is counterfeit, and start cheating to a higher degree. To that end, fashion is incredibly different from other products. Imagine that I’m at home cheating on my taxes, I exaggerate some receipts, and I listen to some illegally downloaded music. The moment I step outside, I no longer think about the illegal music, because it’s the past and I’m doing something else. What’s unique about fashion is we keep carrying it everywhere we go. If I wear fake sunglasses at home, I also have them with me, and it keeps reminding me they’re not real and that I am not as honest as I want to think I am. With music, the situation is very different because the object (the electronic file) is the same whether you pay for it or not. With products, the fake and the real items are not the same. If you get a fake product you’re getting something that you’re proud of, and you project that image, and carry it with you, and you do all that while remembering it’s fake. Because of that I think that fake products have a much longer and deeper affect on morality than in other areas.
Fake or real? A wearer’s behavior might change for the worse if these Christian Louboutin heels are actually counterfeit. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
HL: When it comes to those counterfeit buyers, just how bad is it? Your research, of course, showed an overall likelihood to cheat more, but how much do you see this playing out in real life?
DA: Well, the intervening variable we should think about is how much we use the counterfeit product. If it’s mostly in your closet, and you use it once a year for a New Year’s party, it’s probably not going to have much of an effect. But the more you carry it with you, the more effect it’ll have.
HL: How do you reconcile your concept of self-inflation with wearing fakes? Is it possible that wearing an attainable, if copied, item is just a means of convincing one’s self of being bigger and better?
DA: We can convince ourselves of all kinds of things, but can we convince ourselves that what’s fake is actually real? I’m sure there are places you can convince yourself that something fake is real. Someone recently saw my book counterfeited in Taiwan, but it was in an airport store. In their mind, because it was in an airport store, they could think it was an okay copy.
HL: A fake copy wouldn’t be in a highly trafficked, reputable location.
DA: Exactly, and there are more places like that in the world. You can buy fake stuff in nice looking malls. People can turn a blind eye. Let’s imagine a particular purse in the U.S. that costs $500. If you buy it in Chinatown, it’s $50. What happens if you go to a nice store in the mall and it’s $100 or $150? Could you say to yourself that it’s not really fake? You would, over time, remember you bought it from a nice store and forget it’s not the real thing. There are ways for human rationalization.
People have many ways to rationalize what they want, and fashion is no exception. For the fashion industry, I think it’s incredibly important to figure out what people rationalize and how to stop it.