One sunny Sunday afternoon in May a well-dressed woman in her late 60s shops on Canal Street in New York City. She’s with what appears to be her granddaughter, a girl of 10 or 12. She stops to look at leather purses being sold out of a large black plastic trash bag by a vendor at the corner of Greene Street. The woman looks at different colors—black, blue, red and white—slinging the purses over her shoulder, turning one way and then other, asking the child’s opinion of each.
After a bit of imaginary play as to what the various bags might look like while being carried, she selects the white one. It features the distinctive diagonal stitching and opposing interlocked double Cs of the Chanel trademark design. The woman haggles with the vendor, eventually handing over a $20 bill. With the new purse safely tucked away in a small plastic bag, the woman takes up the child’s hand and they go off in search of ice cream.
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him
Tourist guides tout Canal Street as a free-wheeling shopper’s paradise, overflowing with goods available at below-bargain-basement prices that are always negotiable. It’s especially noted as a place to find designer products: purses marked with the Louis Vuitton and Coach logos, perfume identified as Chanel or Calvin Klein, and all manner of accessories bearing the distinctive Burberry plaid. But for the most part, these items are counterfeit, and violate US intellectual property law governing the use of trademarks, patents and copyrights.
Taking Stock of the Field
Canal Street cuts clear across lower Manhattan, connecting the Manhattan Bridge on the east with the Holland Tunnel on the west, providing a direct route from Brooklyn, Queens, and farther out on Long Island to New Jersey and then beyond to the rest of the American continent. Midway between the bridge and the tunnel, Canal intersects with Broadway, one of the world’s most celebrated avenues. The area surrounding the corner of Canal and Broadway is gritty, filled with the noise of traffic and the sounds of human activity. The smell of diesel exhaust mingles with the scent of grilling meat. The streetscape is a montage urban decay and renewed metropolitan life.
The intersection is a threshold for two of New York’s more affluent neighborhoods, Tribeca and SoHo, and one of its enduring and still growing ethnic enclaves, Chinatown. Laurie Anderson’s loft is down on Canal to the west, Bono’s is a few blocks north. To the east, illegal immigrants sleep in shifts, sometimes in bunks stacked three high, with only a rucksack hung by a nail containing all that they own.
The main market for counterfeit branded goods on Canal extends one or two blocks on either side of Broadway, depending upon whether you’re on the north or south side of the street. The area is accessible via the entire New York City subway system with one transfer. There are also municipal and tour-groups buses that serve the area throughout the day. People come from all over to shop among the neighborhood stalls and street vendors, attracted in part by the area’s carnival-like atmosphere. The market offers relief from the “McDonaldized” nature of modern consumer society, a place to escape the predictability of brightly lit, climate-controlled suburban shopping malls.
The market for counterfeit branded products on Canal is healthy, despite attempts by officials to shut it down. One day I counted more than 350 vendors doing business in a four-block area. Nearly half of them were engaging in intellectual property rights violations, including selling pirated CDs and DVDs and counterfeit handbags, pens, perfumes, watches, hats and scarves. The sidewalk is often filled to capacity with shoppers carrying off their booty, typically in unmarked bags. Many gather at the Burger King on Canal (an oasis of comfort for Middle Americans amidst the exotica otherwise surrounding them) to grab a bite and show off their swag.
Many other vendors sell merchandise “inspired” by designer products, but don’t use counterfeit brand identities per se. These include bags market “V” instead of “LV” or “Prego” instead of “Prada”. In many cases, these items look substantially similar if not identical to the trademarked products that inspired them. These vendors could easily engage in intellectual property piracy by adding or changing logos at the time of purchase. This is a fairly standard practice actually, as many consumers I’ve interviewed told me vendors often offer to make the switch as part of their sales pitch. In fact, importing unbranded merchandise and adding counterfeit brands at the point of sale is one of the main ways of getting around US Customs inspectors according to the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition, a Washington DC-based lobbying group that represents intellectual property rights owners mainly in the fashion industry. (Ironically, many of the fashion industry’s outsourcing practices also help keep the knockoff trade in business.)
Photo from GothamGazette.com
The division of labor on Canal Street seems to be primarily along ethnic and gender lines. The vendor stalls (fixed physical locations, either storefronts or permanent sidewalk displays) are staffed by and large by Asian men, including those from the Indian subcontinent. The food vendors are also usually men, typically Middle-Eastern. The roaming vendors selling counterfeit brand watches are nearly all African men, reportedly mostly Sudanese. Most of the purse and CD/DVD vendors, the bottom of the pyramid, are Asian women, who move from corner to corner as crowds gather and disperse.
There’s little activity on Canal before 11am, and vendors can often be seen with counterfeit merchandise on display in the early morning hours. As the market gets more crowded and the risk from the presence of authorities increases, the merchandise is concealed under black cloths or behind screens and the transactions take on a more surreptitious air. More recently, vendors have taken to keeping merchandise at another location and bringing customers to it or going off to retrieve specific items, many times chosen from a printed catalog. The vendors also use walkie-talkie-enabled cell phones to notify each other another of passing anti-fraud inspectors, many of whom have worked the same beat for years and are well-known. Even so, vendors are arrested regularly. Notably, customers of counterfeit or pirated products are not subject to arrest.
Tracking Consumer Confidence
Consumer attitudes toward counterfeit branded products haven’t been studied to a substantial degree. (There are only a few studies of which I’m aware, all done outside the United States.) The phenomenon has been studied in terms of intellectual property rights, generally to describe the problem and what remedies might be available to those whose rights are seen as being infringed upon. There have been many stories in the popular media, of course, but they’re usually “consumer alerts” informing people of the illegal nature of counterfeit and pirated goods, often connecting the trade in them to terrorism. These stories are often placed by PR flacks who maintain a constant drumbeat on behalf of intellectual property owners.
There are several ways to characterize consumers of counterfeit branded products. One is to think of them as victims, people who bought products represented as genuine that are actually fake. Another is to see them as dupes, people who attach value to a product simply because it has a distinctive mark that bears no “authentic” connection to the thing itself. (Although, it can be argued that brands of the legitimate variety perform the same function, distinguishing like products from one another, types of bottled water, for example, based on associations that have little or nothing to do with quality or function.) But consumers of counterfeit branded products can also be seen as communicators, people who demonstrate literacy in the meanings attached to certain symbols in the marketplace both of goods and ideas.
As a result of interviews and other research, I’ve come to term these consumers “rational-acting communicators”: they understand the status and other connotations of premium brands and make a conscious effort to consume counterfeits as a way of negotiating value, economically and socially. If presented with a choice between two handbags made of the same material, design, color, quality of manufacturing, etc., one a generic and the other marked with a counterfeit designer logo, such as Kate Spade or Prada, they would always pick the counterfeit. Plus they’re willing to pay up to twice as much for it, depending on the price point. This would still be a fraction of the “genuine’ article’s cost; for example, a bag at the Chanel boutique on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan like the one I saw purchased on Canal Street would run well over $1,000.
Photo from Cleavelin.Net
American sociologist Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory is useful in understanding the rational-acting communicator. For Goffman, social behavior has a theater-like aspect: people are like actors in an unending series of dramas, playing out roles society requires. The “front stage” is the social space where various roles are acted out in the presence of others, and the “backstage” is where things that are normally suppressed are revealed. Shopping is a kind of “dress rehearsal”, a backstage where anxieties and vanities can be expressed.
An important factor in counterfeit brand consumption is what might be termed the “imaginary audience”, those for whom we create personae and perform our dramas. Consumer products are props for front-stage presentation. The imaginary audience can include family, friends, peers, or some idealized other, held in the mind as party to identity construction. Their endorsement of values such as “good taste”, “high class”, “fashion-forward”, or whatever other prepackaged attribute we want to adopt, is purchased at deep discount through counterfeit brand consumption. It provides an avenue to escape a certain condition of poverty, which Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen defines as the inability to appear in public without shame.
One possible social sanction of consuming counterfeit branded products is the shame associated with the exposure of what might be called consumerist “passing”, of being outed as playing a kind of confidence game. But as Goffman declares in a footnote to his 1959 classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, “The confidence man [in this case, the rational-acting communicator] is in a position to hold the whole ‘legit’ world in his contempt.” In interviews, rational-acting communicators say they rarely try to hide from others that their counterfeit items aren’t genuine. It’s the opposite of what more often seems the case. In her newly published novel about the New York art world, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, Danielle Ganek writes of one character, a parvenu collector / social climber, that she carries a Birkin bag “so big it looks fake, but Connie doesn’t have the confidence to carry a fake.”
Photo from ALittleRedHen
Indeed, it can be argued that it’s in the “‘legit’ world” that confidence games are really being played. Through what I call the “aura” of the brand, the material world of consumer goods is enchanted, creating added value for both producer and consumer. For producers, the added value of branding is the higher prices and profit margins they command. For consumers, it’s the confidence acquired through the brand’s aura as a prosthetic in social situations where goods are traded as information. (There is a saying in the business world, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”; the same holds true for social situations when it comes to wearing Gucci, Prada, etc.) The recognition and acceptance of these symbols by others is a form of what Goffman terms “team collusion”, the subtle signals sent between social dramatis personae while performing to ensure that the suspension of disbelief is maintained.
Yet rational-acting communicators are far from deluded. Their decisions to acquire ersatz commodity-signs for conspicuous display are pragmatic and informed. This would appear so even though they may enact other conceits, which Goffman terms “mystifications”, to sustain an aura of authenticity before their audience, be they real or imagined.
Vince Carducci reviews books for PopMatters and is currently completing a PhD dissertation on global consumerism and its discontents at the New School for Social Research in New York City.
Editor’s note: Another version of this essay (complete with footnotes, references and academic jargon) appeared in the Consumers, Commodities & Consumption Newsletter, published by the Consumer Studies Research Network.