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TikTok made knockoffs cool. At what cost?


Feb 25, 2023 #cool, #cost, #knockoffs, #TikTok

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Everyone loves to feel like they’re getting a good deal. It’s a trait found across history and geography: People haggled in the agoras and souks of antiquity; they bargain in car dealerships; they scour the internet for coupon codes. Now deal hunting has been discovered by TikTok, where an audience made up overwhelmingly of teens and young adults has gathered to worship at the altar of the dupe.

Short for duplicate, dupes are less-expensive alternatives to brand-name products. Don’t want to pay $118 for a Lululemon sweatshirt? Amazon will sell you a $39 version that is practically identical when viewed from a distance. Does $600 seem like a little much for what amounts to a very elaborate curling iron, even if it is made by Dyson? TikTok loves this $299 alternative, which is, incidentally, also made by a vacuum brand.

Virtually anything can be duped, and virtually everything is: clothing, shoes, home decor, personal electronics, exercise gear, furniture, household cleaners, and every cosmetic or skin-care product imaginable. If the more expensive products have themselves already been the object of viral TikTok acclaim, that’s even better. TikTokers source their dupes from big-box stores or the anonymous depths of Amazon, and the recommendations arrive with the platform’s characteristic casualness. In one of the most popular formats, a pretty young woman will rave into her front-facing camera about drugstore makeup or discount shapewear like a friend sharing some juicy gossip after a couple of glasses of wine. The most compelling of these recommendations take a slightly conspiratorial tone, as though the breakthrough being shared isn’t a product available with free two-day shipping but a fundamental glitch in the matrix.

Dupe-recommendation videos are sometimes referred to as “de-influencing,” in the sense that they seem to be at war with all of the expensive junk that traditional influencers hawk online. From that perspective, dupes are suffused with a grand promise: If branding is meant to trick you into spending money, maybe a dedication to dupes means it hasn’t worked on you. But the reality is, well, a little bit trickier.

The term dupe is itself a product of an earlier internet era: the late 2000s, when finding information about your niche interests meant relying on a diffuse network of bloggers and message boards. I remember first hearing the term around 2010, on nail-polish blogs where people traded tips on finding dupes for cult-favorite shades that had been long since discontinued. During the same period, beauty bloggers used the term to theorize about the relationship between makeup brands. If you didn’t want to pay for a particular concealer from Giorgio Armani, the logic went, you might be able to find a dupe sold by Maybelline, because they’re both owned by L’Oréal and would therefore be more likely to have similar formulations.

The concept of dupes has fuzzy edges—it is, after all, a designation primarily marshaled by teens on the internet. Generally, dupes aren’t counterfeit products masquerading as the real thing, but they’re similar enough that many of them might be fairly described as knockoffs, which is itself a fuzzy term capacious enough to include purposeful copycats on both sides of copyright law. Dupes don’t need to be cheap in absolute terms—300 bucks is still a lot to spend on a hair gadget, for example—though many of them are. And they aren’t necessarily of lower quality—though, again, many of them are. What’s most important is that a dupe is significantly less expensive than whatever original product is being held up as simultaneously a holy grail and an overpriced rip-off, and the dupe needs to be close enough in appearance or performance to make the cheaper option seem like a genuinely good deal.

That dupes would gain prominence in the beauty industry makes perfect sense, if for no other reason than that people who buy beauty products are right to suspect that they’re being fooled. Compared with other kinds of products, makeup and skin care can have extraordinarily high markups, and the more a product is marked up, the easier it is for a competitor to make something similar and lower the price. In consumer electronics, the average gross margin in the industry currently hovers from 20 to 30 percent. A particularly successful firm such as Samsung can reach toward 40. Meanwhile, Estée Lauder, which owns beauty brands such as MAC and Clinique, had a gross margin of more than 73 percent at the end of 2022. Much of the beauty industry’s markup gets sunk into customer-acquisition costs—marketing and branding efforts to convince people that, among other things, there’s a real difference between the products sold by luxury brands and those available at Target. Sometimes there is, but more often, you’d be just as happy with the dupe.

According to Amy Pei, a marketing professor at Northeastern University who studies shopping on digital platforms, there’s no real beginning to the dupe trend. Consumer interest in lower-cost options is as old as the consumer market itself, as is the propensity for brands to make their own versions of already-popular products and try to undercut one another on price. Instead, the internet’s primary innovation is the term itself. Pei used the example of knockoff Eames chairs, which have been around almost as long as Eames chairs themselves after their introduction in the 1950s. When I was obsessing over my mom’s fashion magazines in the 1990s, recommendations for similar, less expensive clothes and beauty products were already a mainstay of the shopping pages at the front of the book. And interest in “look for less” options has long pushed buyers and sellers beyond the strictly legal; in the early 2000s, teenagers at my high school were already whispering about how to buy fake Louis Vuitton bags on band and orchestra field trips to New York.

All of which is to say: In considering the dupe phenomenon, it would be folly to commit what you might call the “Fundamental TikTok Error,” which happens when adults decide that kids these days are doing something truly novel and consequential when in fact they’re just being normal teens. The novelty is primarily perceptual: If you show up at a high school to watch the teens, the police will probably want to speak with you, but you can scroll Instagram and dissect TikToks all day. In reality, adolescents and young adults have been acutely trend conscious and acutely incapable of paying for expensive stuff for generations, and cool teens have fancied themselves too smart for advertising since at least the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s.

What might have changed from 15 or 20 years ago, Pei told me, is the way that young people perceive the act of buying dupes, knockoffs, and counterfeits. Until very recently, buyers tended to hope that their lower-price products would go undetected by the general public and instead be mistaken for the real thing. You might confide in a friend about the great deal you found, but the point of finding it was to appear to all the world like you could afford the fancy clothes and expensive makeup and luxury home decor. You certainly didn’t want to go viral for gushing about off-brand leggings, which might suggest that you were cheap, broke, or both. Now gushing about those leggings might make you a well-regarded internet celebrity.

At first blush, this might seem like a modestly positive change in how young people relate to the stuff they buy, in line with other putatively adversarial developments in how young people think about consumption. These shoppers, we are told, are concerned about climate change and wastefulness and corporate power, and rising prices and deepening economic precarity have complicated their feelings about conspicuous wealth. If you’re 22 and have a $600 curling wand, what are you, some kind of nepo baby? Today, with the advent of online shopping’s aimless, meaningless variety, unearthing a good dupe can be seen as a sign of cleverness: Even if momentarily, you’ve bent the internet to your will. It’s a win for the little guy, and you, personally, as an individual, are the little guy.

But this shift isn’t actually any kind of meaningful rebuke of corporate marketing, nor is it an expression of Gen Z’s widely touted anti-consumerist beliefs. Instead, it’s just more consumption. Branding is, yes, absolutely fake, and it’s often wielded to trick people into parting with their money in ways that are unnecessary or unsatisfying. But the material reality of objects is somewhat less fungible, and although there is plenty of expensive, low-quality crap sloshing around in the American consumer market, the differences in what two similar items cost isn’t always just a marketing mirage. High-quality materials, skilled labor, good working conditions, and thorough product development all cost more money than their alternatives. They also produce far more useful, durable, and beautiful results.

None of which is to say that the most expensive version of anything is always the best, or that every less expensive option is wasteful trash. Rather, the problem is that in the American consumer market, the relationship between price and quality can be impossible to discern, and the trend cycle has sped up so much that we’re always supposed to be shopping for something. Americans—particularly the young people overrepresented on TikTok—are bombarded by constantly changing media and social messaging about how we’re supposed to dress, groom ourselves, decorate our homes, and live our lives. Yet Americans are also entitled to very little information about the products we buy, and the knowledge necessary to evaluate the quality of a dress’s fabric or the structural integrity of a new couch is not nearly as common as it once was. If you have no real way to parse the differences in the products available to you, why wouldn’t you just buy the cheapest acceptable version of everything, especially if you know it will feel hopelessly out of date in six months?

This constant churn is good for pretty much anyone selling consumer products, no matter the price point—even most brands whose products are getting knocked off left and right. “If I were the designer brands, I wouldn’t be too concerned about this phenomenon,” Pei said. “I don’t think I am losing sales to the duplicates. In fact, I’ve been getting free advertising.” Some brands, such as Ugg, even make and market their own dupes. The idea that copycats are actually good for more expensive brands is well supported by research: Counterfeit products are known to increase the public profile of high-end brands and lead to more sales overall, even if those brands do lose out on some sales of a specific product. Dupe hunting is, at its core, a tacit admission that you actually do really want the more expensive product—and, according to Pei, once you own a dupe, it’s a constant reminder of that other, probably nicer thing that you might like even more.

This is how consumers are created: Desires are induced in young people, and young people are provided with affordable ways to explore them. As they get older, their paychecks will tend to get bigger, and their perception of what constitutes a good deal—or a justifiable splurge—might shift. And for those whose income or spending patterns don’t climb the aspiration ladder, well, they just keep buying dupes. During this year’s Super Bowl, the makeup brand e.l.f. ran a commercial starring Jennifer Coolidge and co-written by The White Lotus’s Mike White. In some of the most expensive airtime in the history of television, the brand was selling one of TikTok’s favorite dupes: a $10 makeup primer with a sticky finish, which fans swear will stick makeup to your face just as well as Milk Makeup’s similar $36 product. Choose whichever one you want. Either way, you keep buying.


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