Low Self Esteem Drives Counterfeit Trade

The psychology of buyers and wearers of counterfeit goods: Can wearing a fake Rolex watch lower your self-esteem and induce general unethical behaviour? – Griffith Hack

8 December 2011
As a regular item in NeedToKnow, we highlight a scientific or psychological study on consumer behaviour that has caught our attention.

Counterfeiting of luxury brands is a multi-billion dollar industry, and while some buyers of fakes are innocent victims who believe they are buying the real thing, most buyers are fully aware that the goods they are buying are fake and are complicit in their illegal trade. Whilst the obvious motivator for buying fakes is their much lower price, little attention has been paid to how consumers regard fakes in relation to their own self image and how this affects their behaviour. In this issue, we look at two studies which examined the psychology of buyers and wearers of fake goods – such an understanding is vital in order to understand the demand drivers for counterfeits.

A counterfeit image

In the first study1, the researchers describe the branded world we live in as a place where “consumer goods have become the material carriers of meaning [and] outward displays of identity are embodied in the signs and symbols of brands.” Consumers therefore see brands as bridging the gap between the actual self and the ideal self – ie. the image of oneself as one would like to be. But what happens when these brands are counterfeit and the buyer knows it? Can buyers still achieve their ideal image through the consumption of counterfeit goods? That is, does the “bridging effect” of a brand – the aura and meanings of the brand – disappear if you know it is a fake?

The researchers interviewed a sample of fashion-aware Glasgow buyers under age 30 and asked them questions about their attitudes towards fashion, brands and counterfeiting. Many of the interviewees had purchased fake goods at some time in the past. The researchers found what they describe as “a fundamental contradiction in attitudes towards counterfeit goods, which itself perhaps explains some of the problems that genuine organisations have in addressing the trade”. The interviewees were happy to wear fake brands and to believe that the brand was contributing to their self image if the deception could not be detected, but they also thought less of other buyers of counterfeit goods who pretended that the goods were genuine. So the “bridging effect” of a brand survives even when you know the goods are fake, but at the same time you feel like a fraud and a liar when you wear them. 

A deceptive knowledge

The second group of researchers took it one step further, asking whether “feeling like a fraud makes people more likely to commit fraud?” 
In their study2, the researchers asked a group of young American women to (supposedly) test the comfort and quality of a pair of expensive brand-name designer sunglasses. The researchers told half of the women that the sunglasses were genuine and the other half that they were fake [they were in fact all genuine]. The women were then asked to perform various puzzles and tests, each of which contained opportunities for cheating, such as saying you had finished the test when you hadn’t, scoring yourself more than you deserved or choosing an answer which paid you more (rather than the correct one which paid you less). The researchers found that the women who wore the fake sunglasses were more likely to cheat and behave dishonestly– even without them consciously realising they were doing so. 

As the researchers conclude, while people buy counterfeit goods because they are trying to improve their self-image, “counterfeits have the ironic consequence of harming self-image via inauthenticity, inducing a counterfeit self.” So why do people still buy counterfeit goods? The researchers suggest that buyers make a calculated trade-off, thinking that the benefits outweigh the costs – but, as the study shows, “the influence of wearing counterfeits is deceptive, in that they have an unexpected influence on individuals’ ethicality”. Importantly, that negative effect appears to be unconscious.

Reducing the demand for fakes

By understanding this psychology, brand owners and anti-counterfeiting organisations can develop campaigns to reduce the demand for fakes, by targeting this thinking of buyers of fakes. I can just imagine advertising campaigns on the social embarrassment of being caught wearing fake goods, or the deep-down feeling of being a fraud and a liar, or why you shouldn’t employ, trust and/or marry anyone who wears a fake Rolex watch or fake Prada handbag!
For further information, please contact:
Chris Sgourakis, Principal
Email Chris
[1] Hoe, L., Hogg, G. & Hart, S. (2003), “Fakin’ it: Counterfeit and consumer contradictions”, European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6,eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, p.60-67.
[2] Gino, F., Norton, M., & Ariely, D. (2010). The counterfeit self: The deceptive costs of faking it. Psychological Science, 21(5), 712-720.


Lee Hoe, Glasgow Caledonian University, UK
Gillian Hogg, Strathclyde University, UK
Susan Hart, Strathclyde University, UK
European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 60-67


Forget the “Real” Thing–Take the Copy! An Explanatory Model for the Volitional Purchase
of Counterfeit Products
Elfriede Penz, Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien
Barbara Stöttinger, Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien
Advances in Consumer Research 
Volume 32, © 2005


Original brands and counterfeit  brands—do they have anything in common?
Journal of Consumer Behaviour 
7: 146–163 (2008)
Published online in Wiley InterScience



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