UKIPO Researches Impact of Social Media Influencers on Counterfeit Goods in the United Kingdom

The UKIPO’s latest report examines the effects that social media influencers have on the purchase of counterfeit goods in the UK, aimed at gathering the necessary data to combat this issue

12 April 2022

Social media influencers have come under scrutiny from the UKIPO in its recent review of the impact of complicit influencers on the consumption of counterfeit goods. The report is the latest in a series of reports commissioned by the UKIPO aimed at gathering evidence relating to counterfeit goods with the ultimate aim of facilitating behavioural changes in UK consumers.

Overview

The UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) has recently published the results of its research into the impact of complicit social media influencers on the consumption of counterfeit goods. Overall, the report found that social media endorsements prompted 10% of participants to purchase counterfeit goods and, at least amongst younger female adults, played a key role in constructing rationalisations that neutralise “residual concerns about personal risks, broader societal harms and perceptions of deviance” surrounding their purchase.

The report concludes with overarching recommendations for reform, predominantly focusing on educating the purchasing public (and particularly the younger purchasing public) and discouraging these practices across the various platforms, recognising that social media influencers may themselves be the best vessel for promoting these messages, using the trust gained by their followers to inform them of these risks and discourage counterfeit purchases.

The UKIPO’s Study

The research involved an anonymous online survey of 1,000 participants based in the UK. It used the following definition of ‘counterfeit’ in order to guide the respondents:

“Counterfeits are items that look identical to a genuine product with or without the official branding/logo, but are not made by the brand and may be of lower quality, for example, a handbag of identical design to a “Chanel” with or without the Chanel logo.”

The survey targeted female participants aged 16 to 60 who used social media at least once a week. The report’s focus on a younger, female audience sought to maximise the efficiency of the pilot study; existing empirical data suggested that social media influencer marketing is both “highly gendered” and dominated by female influencers and consumers and, more generally, that younger respondents were more likely to purchase counterfeit goods.

The survey asked the participants whether they had purchased counterfeit goods as a result of influencer endorsements at any time in the previous year. Of those surveyed, 17% had knowingly purchased a counterfeit product, although only 3% of these had set out ‘proactively seeking’ to purchase counterfeit items. Overall, 10% of the participants had been prompted by social media endorsements to buy counterfeit goods and, in the majority of cases, had been aware that the products were counterfeit. Most of these counterfeits related to products in the fashion, accessories, jewellery and beauty product categories.

In line with previous studies in relation to counterfeit goods, younger participants (i.e. those in the 16 to 33 age group) were found to be almost four times more likely to knowingly purchase counterfeits than their 34 to 60 age group counterparts. Overall, 13% of the respondents reported that they had purchased counterfeits either deliberately or by mistake following social media influencer endorsements.

The Four Factors

The report identifies four factors that increase the likelihood of counterfeit purchasing:

  1. being more susceptible to the influence of trusted others;
  2. being less likely to perceive the risks associated with buying counterfeits;
  3. having a higher risk appetite; and
  4. being more likely to construct rationalisations that justify the purchasing behaviour.

The survey found that influencers are five times more successful in marketing to 16-33 year olds than those in the 34-60 age group category. This success led “to a heavily skewed demand profile whereby 17% of knowing counterfeit buyers are young, habitual buyers who generate nearly half the demand for counterfeits (47%)”. It also found that there was a higher acceptability by younger respondents towards the purchase of counterfeit goods, with approximately half of those believing it was acceptable to do so where products (particularly those considered ‘luxury’) were ‘overpriced’. The findings indicated that this perception was compounded by the acceptance of counterfeit use by trusted social media influencers who played a key role in constructing rationalisations that neutralised the behaviour.

Overall, younger consumers appeared to be less concerned with the health and safety risks associated with counterfeit purchases or saw the promotion of a product by a social media influencer as an endorsement of its safety (noted as being one of the ‘key concerns’ behind this issue). There also appeared to be a general lack of awareness of the ‘knock-on’ effects that these practices were having, with 26% of the younger survey participants not recognising the economic threat (in terms of business damage and potential loss of jobs) associated with the purchase of counterfeit goods.

Recommendations

The report concludes that, when combined, the four factors “area noxious mix that increases the likelihood of deviant purchasing” and recommends adopting policies aimed at educating younger consumers on the risks associated with counterfeit purchases and wider societal harms associated with these practices. It notes that policies should attempt to take a holistic approach, with a focus on the four factors driving counterfeit purchases as well as the role that social media influencers play in promoting them. In particular, the report concludes that social media influencers themselves are particularly well positioned to assist in addressing these issues by educating their followers on the risks involved with purchasing counterfeit goods.

The report recommends engaging in further research in this area by expanding the reach of the study (for example, to also encompass male consumers). It also recommends further research be undertaken to identify the types of policies that would be most effective in dealing with these issues in order to prevent influencers (and their suppliers) from profiting from these illicit activities.

Analysis

The report comes in the wake of growing concerns over the rise in the production and purchase of counterfeit goods. A rise in the provision and consumption of online content (due, in part, to the covid-19 pandemic) has seen a corresponding spike in infringing behaviour across websites, including social media channels. A recent joint report commissioned by the OECD and the EU Intellectual Property Office, ‘Global Trade in Fakes - A Worrying Threat’, estimates that global trade in counterfeit goods was worth over €412 billion in 2019 (over 2.5% of world trade). 

The UKIPO’s report adds useful empirical analysis to a growing body of research aimed at understanding the behaviours that drive the purchase of counterfeit goods. However, raising consumer awareness to reduce demand is just one of a number of strategies aimed at combatting this issue, and implementing policies and tactics that deter the criminals themselves and disrupt illegal supply chains (by way of civil and/or criminal enforcement action) are equally as important. Whilst the report does not touch upon the potential liability of influencers for their endorsement of counterfeit products, in respect of goods that infringe a registered trade mark, for example, such action could lead to criminal liability pursuant to section 92 of the Trade Marks Act 1994, as well as potential civil liability. Holding public figures to account may be the deterrent that they and their follows ultimately need in order for the consequences of these illicit practices to really hit home.

This article was written by Emily Roberts and Chloe Perea Poole and a version first appeared in the IP Litigator in their March/April 2022 edition.

For more information or if you have any questions, please contact Chloe Perea Poole, or your usual IP team contact.

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Emily Roberts

Emily Roberts Partner

  • Intellectual Property and Media
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