A while back I was summoned for jury duty and found myself being considered for a case against a young Latina with a court translator.  She was accused of selling counterfeit Gucci and Chanel purses on the street in L.A.  After introducing the case, the judge asked: ”Is any reason why you could not objectively apply the law?” My hand shot up.

I said:

I have to admit, I’m kind of disgusted that state resources are being used to protect the corporate interests of Chanel and Gucci.

Then I gave a spiel about corruption in the criminal justice system and finished up with:

I think that society should be protecting its weakest members, not penalizing them for trivial infractions. There is no way in good conscience I could give that girl a criminal record, I don’t care if she’s guilty. Some things are more important than the rules.

I was summarily dismissed.

Criminal prosecutions are one way to decrease counterfeiting and, yes, protect corporate interests and Shaynah H. sent in another: shame.  This National Crime Prevention Council/Bureau of Justice Assistance ad, spotted in a mall in Portland, tells you that if you buy knock-offs, you are “a phony.”

Yikes.  I would have preferred “savvy” or “cost-conscious.”  But, no, the message is clear.  You are a fake person, a liar, a hypocrite.  You are insincere and pretentious.  You are an impostor.  (All language borrowed from the word’s definition.)  And these are not something that anyone wants to be.

But, honestly, why does anyone care?

I suspect that counterfeits don’t really cut into Chanel’s profits directly.  The people who buy bags that costs thousands of dollars are not going to try to save some pennies by buying a knock-off.  Or, to put it the inverse way, the people who are buying the counterfeits wouldn’t suddenly be buying the originals if their supply ran out.

Instead, policing the counterfeiters is a response to a much more intangible concern, something Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital.”  You see, a main reason why people spend that kind of money on handbags is to be seen as the kind of person who does.  The handbags are a signal to others that they are “that kind” of person, the kind that can afford a real Gucci.  The products, then, are ways that people put boundaries between themselves and lesser others.

But, when lesser others can buy knock-offs on the street in L.A. and just parade around as if they can buy Gucci too!  Well, then the whole point of buying Gucci is lost!  If the phony masses can do it, it no longer serves to distinguish the elites from the rest of us.

In this sense, Chanel and Gucci are very interested in reducing counterfeiting; the rich people who buy their products will only do so if buying them proves that they’re special.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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