Wear a Fake Rolex, Turn Into O.J.


You can find fake designer and luxury products just about anywhere these days, and most people consider owning one a harmless transgression. After all, if you were never going to pay $12,000 for a real Rolex, who is really hurt if you wear a fake that cost you $30? Rolex didn’t really lose a sale, right? It turns out that the victim of the “crime” may be none other than YOU!

A fascinating research project has demonstrated that the act of wearing a fake designer item actually causes an individual to behave in a more unethical and cynical manner. The study, by Francesca Gino, Michael I. Norton, and Dan Ariely, started by giving a group of young female subjects expensive Chloé sunglasses to wear. These glasses were actually all authentic products, but half of the subjects were told that they were wearing a fake.

In subsequent testing the subjects wearing the “fake” sunglasses were more than TWICE as likely to cheat on a math test (71% vs 26%) when they thought their cheating would not be detected. Another test showed that the subjects wearing “fake” sunglasses judged other people as more likely to behave in a dishonest manner.

Will You Turn into O.J.?

One celebrity caught wearing fake luxury was none other than O. J. Simpson. His brand trickery was exposed when a Los Angeles judge ordered O.J. to turn over his Rolex watch as part of the judgment against him won by the Goldman family. The timepiece in question turned out to be a cheap knockoff.

While some might say O.J. wearing a fake watch is just one more example of his often duplicitous behavior, this research suggests that the act of wearing that watch had the potential to encourage breaking the rules.

So, while it’s unlikely that carrying a phony Louis Vuitton purse or wearing a fake Breitling watch will send you into a homicidal rage, O.J.’s saga adds a cautionary (albeit anecdotal) underline to the academic findings.

Note that this study doesn’t say anything about those individuals (like O.J.) who choose to purchase fakes. Rather, the experiments showed the behavioral effects on average individuals of wearing what they thought was a counterfeit. You can draw your own conclusions about those who actually seek out and wear fake products.

Marketing Lessons?

So, it appears that wearing fake products is one step on the road to personal perdition. But what does it mean for marketers? For those selling often-counterfeited luxury brands, this research is good news. Rather than providing an ego boost, wearing fakes makes one feel like a phony. Acting on this information is another matter. What’s Gucci to do? Run ads telling people carrying a fake purse will turn them into jerks? (I DO kind of like the idea of an ad featuring O.J. with a headline like, “Wearing Fakes? You’re in Good Company!” But don’t expect to see it.)

Still, one neuromarketing takeaway is that authenticity counts. If you are marketing a product, focusing more on its own merits vs. similarities to competitors might be a good thing from a customer satisfaction standpoint. If people buy your product not on its own merits but to convey the image of another brand, the personality effects could be similar to what the researchers observed with knockoffs.

Of course, this research doesn’t say that counterfeit (or imitative) products won’t sell well, just that the purchaser may be changed for the worst. Although it is nice to think that people will begin to be aware of their subconscious feelings and abandon the fakes, there’s nothing in this study to suggest that’s true. Indeed, it’s possible that fake-wearers feel quite satisfied with their phony purchases despite the observed behavior changes.

Read the whole paper (originally published in Psychological Science): The Counterfeit Self: The Deceptive Costs of Faking It.

  1. David Krueger MD says

    The brain has an error detection mechanism that registers when something appears wrong. This innate capacity detects what neuroscientists call “errors”: the differences between expectation and perceived actuality. This portion of the brain plays a central role in detecting mistakes as well as responding to them.

    I have a Blog on this: “When Lies and Debts Are Similar” at http://www.thesecretlanguageofmoney.com/site/archives/8-When-Lies-and-Debts-Are-Similar.html

    You can deceive others – even your own mind. But your brain always knows.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    But your brain doesn’t always know it knows! 🙂

    Good point, David.


  3. Doug Beckers says

    What I found really interesting about the study was that a huge 27% of people were prepared to cheat in an exam. This seems like a very large number, it would be interesting to know if this is the “normal” level of cheating in society.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Actually, Doug, that may be a LOW number. According to USA Today, 64% of high school students have cheated on a test. I’ve seen even higher numbers for college students. At least it doesn’t harm the cheaters’ self-image. The USAToday story reports that 93% were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77% considered themselves above average ethically. Kind of sad.


  4. Grey says

    I think the OJ reference is off. If my estate was being swallowed by a questionable civil suit to the point that a judge orders me to give my watch away, i would sell it and give in a fake one to beat the system, and that if i didn’t already sell it to eat.

  5. Jim Vanderwi says

    So what about people who fake it by purchasing real watches that they can’t afford by using credit and then not paying it off? Then when the debt is not payed off, the taxpayers foot the bill. I’d just as soon have them buy fakes with cash. Living beyond one’s means is what I consider faking it.

  6. Pete Austin @marketingxd says

    @Doug, @Roger: Apples vs Oranges

    The 26% – 30% number of cheaters was for *one test*. Interesting how the precise number varies in different reports. If lack of fact checking is cheating, then apparently most journalists cheat.

    The 64% number of cheaters was for *the previous year*

  7. abner says

    fake it til you make it! 😀

  8. Ana says

    I would like to know more about the characteristics of the sample. How many students participated to this experiment? What were the math test results of these students before this experience? Maybe those who received the “fake” sunglasses hadn’t the same characteristics with those who had the original ones (social status) ? And if the experiment put out some differences in cheating scores, between this two groups, is this result statistically significant?

    Maybe they should have done a math test before this experiment and then, after, and then see the variations in the evolution of “cheating results”.

    I’m sorry for my english, I’m a french student and I’m working on past purchase behavior of people who have both: luxury and counterfeit luxury products.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Hi, Ana, no worries on the English, it’s fine! Here’s another link to the scientific paper that the post was based on:
      For a more general look at a whole range of cheating & dishonesty behaviors, check our Dan Ariely’s most recent book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves. That’s a book for lay readers, but there are plenty of references to research you can dig into. Thanks for stopping by!


  9. Srdjan says

    Ethics is tricky business. When You say: “…wearing a fake designer item actually causes an individual to behave in a more unethical and cynical manner.”, We must also put to question is it ethical to sell Rolex for $12000, or designer sunglasses for $400, when it’s production and marketing cost is less then $100? Of course it’s not ethical, but We are marketers and not theologists, and it’s wrong to expect from consumers to act ethical since they are also playing the marketing game.
    What I see here at play is consumers beating us at our own game, since consumers are using products to market them self in social realm and achieve greater social status, which provides us with greater ego boost. We seek greater financial profits and consumers are seeking greater psychological profits (ego boost). The thing is that products itself does not provide ego boost, it’s the envy, or admiration, of other people that fuels our egos. So person wearing a knock off product, at a fraction of a price, might feel like a phony, or might feel as a superior marketer! As You have suggested in last paragraph.

    Of course, since those people are not a real customers brands are not really losing money directly. But if many start wearing knock off products it can definitely decrease brands exclusivity, which is a basic selling point for luxury brands.

  10. Elizabeth says

    85 females? This is hardly a representative sample. This study hardly warrants this much attention.

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