Generation dupe

Entitled. Distracted. Obsessed with astrology. Among the many criticisms of Generation Z, one that has garnered the most attention is their passion for #dupes. But don’t we all love a bargain? Yes.

Dupe is a noun, short for “duplicate”, and also a verb, meaning “to trick or deceive”. And on the internet, a dupe is a product that looks like a brand-name product but costs, in theory, much less.

In this sense, dupes aren’t new. Knockoffs have been around for as long as there have been consumers lacking the purchasing power to match their true desire. In a capitalist economy, the business potential of dupes begets more business: anything you can do I can do cheaper. Drugstore mascara that costs €5 vs. the more famous €20 version; an imitation Eames chair that costs not €5,000, but a mere €1,500.

Dupes can be produced by anonymous companies in far-flung countries and dredged up from the depths of ecommerce platforms. They can also be manufactured by world-famous brands. More than a few have wound up in court, or at least in the court of public opinion, accused of having copied styles from giant competitor brands and small-time indie labels. The question is, are they doing it legally?

Now, some nuance. Knockoffs exist in a grey area which may or not be covered by intellectual property laws, which vary from country to country. When it comes to design, as Steve Jobs liked to repeat, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” But stealing intellectual property is much more serious and clear-cut when it comes to counterfeits.

Counterfeits are products that copy trademarked elements like the brand logo to pass themselves off as the real thing. Unlike dupes, counterfeit products are clearly illegal – and often purchased unintentionally. Sales of counterfeits have exploded on online platforms, which are now starting to react. Earlier this year, Amazon reported they had removed 6 million counterfeit listings from their platform, and in an effort to choke off the river of supply, have reported or filed suit against many hundreds of counterfeiters throughout Europe, the US and China.

While some Zoomers may be enthusing about actual counterfeit articles in their Tik Toks, their passion for #dupes seems to be more often than not a celebration of shopping within their means. It’s “the economy, stupid”, as US President Bill Clinton’s Boomer campaign strategist once insisted.

In other words, the simple math of young people + low earnings + inflation combined with always-on shopping habits facilitated by frictionless online purchase experiences may go a long way to explaining the love of the dupe. (And seeing it as a perennially situational problem may help us avoid just more intergenerational bickering.) Added to that there’s also social media’s prevailing confessional mode, where influencers of all sizes admit to all manner of quirks, conditions, problems and sins once thought taboo – including shopping for dupes.

Brands may object, but they may also profit from the free advertising the latest hot dupe discovery brings on social media. As it has often been reported, both the dupe and the original product tend to sell out at the same time.

With the availability of information – some true, some not – on social media, Generation Z might be more cynical about whether brand promises match their price tag. It’s been long believed that many counterfeits, however illegal, can often be of similar quality to the original, or at least “close enough” to the consumer. As Roberto Saviano reported in his 2006 book Gomorrah, in Italy designer fakes are sometimes made in the same workshops and by the same craftspeople who make the designer originals.

So when judging dupe culture, the best question may be not “are dupes good or bad” but “to what extent is a certain dupe better or worse than the original?” A question that goes beyond simple price to questions of quality, safety, environmental standards, and social responsibility for the people involved at every step of the value chain.

Brands looking to keep afloat amidst a rising tide of dupes may want to ensure their values are more than window-dressing, and their price tag is pegged to reality – and learn how to communicate both those things clearly on Tiktok. Otherwise, the lower-cost dupes will remain powerfully attractive, and something every generation can agree on.