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Deterring Counterfeit Handbags May Start With Shame

Marketing Professor Shows Promise in New Approach for Manufacturers

By Karen Johnson


Photo by iStock

Research by Yajin Wang, assistant professor of marketing, suggests letting consumers know that others can tell their handbag is a fake is an effective way to combat the counterfeit market.

Legal threats and guilt campaigns haven’t deterred buyers of knockoff high-end handbags. But what about social shaming?

In new research, Maryland Smith’s Yajin Wang, assistant professor of marketing, reveals a more effective way to combat the growing counterfeit market: Let consumers know that no matter how convincing the imposter, others can tell it’s a fake.

After all, she said, the primary motivation for buying a luxury designer accessory is to impress others. If the knockoff has the opposite effect, the allure is lost.

“Consumer desire for counterfeit luxury goods is largely driven by social motives, such as signaling status, gaining social approval and communicating your identity to others,” said Wang. Her research, believed to be the first to examine counterfeit luxury use in a social context, was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology

While many handbag replicas cost just a few dollars and are made of plastic, from the imitation leather to the cheap gold-colored clasps, others can cost hundreds of dollars, and are crafted from finely stitched leather, with real silk interiors and gold-plated emblems. It’s estimated that together, the good and bad counterfeits account for more than 7 percent of the sales of global luxury goods.

Guilt campaigns by Cartier, Chanel and other designers have essentially admonished consumers about the moral or legal implications of buying phony goods. But that approach has found limited success. In surveys, half of respondents admitted to buying counterfeit goods, despite believing that doing so is morally and legally wrong. They often justify the purchases with some moral disengagement, Wang said, for example, by complaining that they couldn’t afford the real thing.

Wang, with co-authors Jennifer Stoner from the University of North Dakota and Deborah Roedder John from the University of Minnesota, conducted five studies examining the impact of social interactions on moral disengagement and behavior among women.

They loaned luxury goods—Burberry scarves, Tiffany bracelets and Louis Vuitton handbags—to female research subjects and told them to imagine they had purchased the items at a steep discount at an outdoor market while studying abroad.

They were then given a computer survey to complete about luxury items, during which they would be interrupted briefly by an actor, who would comment on the item. Some would deliver a “high-authenticity signal” that indicates that they believe the item to be real—“It looks cute on you.”—or a “low-authenticity signal” that indicates that they suspect it’s a fake,—“Is it real?”

The subjects were given $8 for participating in the study and were offered a chance to buy a $1 raffle ticket to win a counterfeit bag. Those who believed they had been caught carrying a fake spent far less money on the raffle—about half of what the other group spent.

Detecting the heightened social anxiety response to the earlier studies, the researchers then tested the effectiveness of an ad campaign that focused not on the guilt of buying a fake or the threat of legal ramifications, but the shame of being caught using a phony. 

The campaign’s slogans zeroed in on that social anxiety, saying it’s easy for other people to spot counterfeits. It said: “When it’s fake, we ALL know it’s fake. Fake purses are easy for others to spot. Don’t take the chance. Buy real.”

“Consistent with our prediction, women viewing the social anxiety advertisement were less interested in purchasing counterfeit luxury products than women viewing the control advertisement,” the study found.



Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.