Learning from Piracy
In a gesture of international goodwill — and because there’s a big trade meeting coming up — the Chinese government recently shut down an enormous bazaar in Shanghai that exclusively offered counterfeit goods.
Merchants and shoppers admitted to reporters that the closure would be momentarily inconvenient but that the bazaar would soon move to another location nearby. Market forces, more powerful even than the pernicious Party, would dictate the bazaar’s future, and those forces, vendors predicted, would ensure continued financial success, no matter how much the authorities wagged a scolding finger or confiscated bootlegged copies of “King Kong.”
The enormous demand for fake Gucci handbags, fake Swatch watches, fake Yao Ming-endorsed basketball shoes, and hastily copied CDs of the latest Kelly Clarkson album tells us something about both the enduring appeal and the essential emptiness of brand names. In the case of a pirated DVD, both seller and buyer are accomplices in a crime of intellectual property (even when the disc in question involves Jessica Simpson). It’s not the plastic disc that has value; it’s what’s on the disc.
In the case of pirated trademarks (the interlocking “C”s on a Chanel purse; the swoosh on a Nike sweatshirt) what’s being stolen is a marketing campaign. The actual purse or sweatshirt is indiscernibly different to the casual assessor. A fake Louis Vuitton luggage set looks identical to the real one. A phony Rolex looks (and functions) very much like the expensive original. What consumers are buying is a common item with an uncommon trademark on it.
Manufacturers that spend millions on differentiating their brand of widget from their competitor’s go to great lengths to remind buyers that counterfeits are shoddy imitations prone to fall apart at the most inopportune moment. These claims might be true, but my experience with things like counterfeit Callaway golf clubs and fake Lacoste shirts is that they function just fine, and for a fraction of the cost of the “real” item. What’s substantively different? The price. By paying more, the buyer is complicit in adding value to a not very valuable hunk of titanium or bolt of cotton cloth. It’s an unspoken contract: The more I pay, the more the marginally worthy item is “worth.” Unlike the bootlegged DVD, which contains information that is unique to the original, a bootlegged tee shirt is utterly unremarkable — just like the original it imitates.
Just because something is easily copied, like a CD, doesn’t make the phenomenon of creation and invention less magical. But when something is easily imitated (to the point that only a trained expert can recognize the difference), the con game that is marketing is exposed in the bright light of the public bazaar. What’s left is something very ordinary, exposed and naked.