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Imitation frenzy: is influencer culture steering young people towards counterfeits?

Posted on 29 April 2024

In recent years, the rise in social media platforms has democratised media access, enabling influencers to create online communities through which they can garner both commercial and non-commercial influence. This social phenomenon, widely referred to as 'influencer culture', can have a particular impact on young people navigating the pressures of conforming to particular lifestyle standards, when faced with content featuring, in particular, travel, high-end fashion, and luxury brands. With over 32% of children from 511 British schools wanting to become influencers (as noted in the Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee 2022 report on influencer culture), many young people are responding to influencer marketing by purchasing items promoted by social media personalities in an effort to mirror similar lifestyles, seek peer approval, and achieve personal satisfaction.

The extent to which young people respond to influencer marketing has become an increasingly social and legal concern, for example in relation to the promotion of counterfeit products.

The steer towards counterfeit goods

Growth in the sale of counterfeit goods facilitated by social media has been identified as a particular concern. A recent study commissioned by the UK Intellectual Property Office revealed some interesting statistics, namely that men are twice as susceptible as women to be influenced by social media to buy counterfeit goods, with 24% of male participants (compared to 10% of female participants) purchasing counterfeit goods endorsed by social media influencers. The top three categories for males are sports and sportswear, clothing and accessories, and jewellery and watches.

The difference is largely attributed to habitual purchasing patterns. Age also plays a key role, with younger male consumers being six times more susceptible to influencer persuasion to purchase counterfeit products compared to males in their 50s. The report follows an earlier study focused on female consumers which found that endorsements by social media influencers prompted 10% of that population group to purchase counterfeit goods.

Factors impacting purchasing decisions

The study identified four main factors which increased the likelihood of counterfeit purchasing:

  • The value of opinions from trusted individuals like family and friends, as well as influencers
  • Justifications of irrational or deviant behaviour
  • Disregard for the potential harm to business and jobs
  • Willingness to take risks

Among these, the opinions of trusted individuals are most influential in the purchasing of counterfeit goods, especially among younger people who are more influenced by their peers and social media. Whilst family has the most social influence across all age groups, participants from the younger age groups were more susceptible to the influence of others, particularly in relation to social media. For females, the study shows that the influence of social media is highest for the 16-24 age group whereas for males, it peaks in the 25-33 age group. This aligns with the view that young people are more vulnerable to the persuasive power of social media influencers.


The report concludes that, in some areas, intervention may be necessary to tackle the issue.

Such measures (some of which are highlighted in the report) could include:

  • Policies to reduce the demand for counterfeit goods targeted at younger, habitual consumers of counterfeits. This could be achieved by the Government's new plans to protect consumers and children online and review paid-for online advertising as part of the Online Advertising Programme.
  • Adopting educational approaches for young people. These could focus on the influence of trusted others, risk blindness and rationalisation by outlining the safety risks of counterfeit goods, particularly in relation to products such as beauty/grooming/hygiene, electrical and alcohol, as well as associating counterfeits with immoral wrong. For example, the Intellectual Property Office recently launched a targeted awareness "Choose Safe not Fake" campaign which aims to tackle consumer demand for counterfeit beauty and hygiene products promoted on social media. It brings together influencers and targeted social media advertising and press and helps reveal the harmful counterfeit products enabling consumers to make informed decisions.
  • Regulators and brand owners should engage with social media platforms, online marketplaces and the influencer marketing industry to tackle 'deviant' social media influencers and disrupt purchasing pathways. On 14 February 2024, the European Commission published a press release revealing that 97% of influencers posted commercial content, but that only one in five indicated that their content was advertising. The European Commission is working with national authorities to investigate their advertisements further.
  • Compelling social media influencers to clearly mark their content as adverts or part of a 'paid partnership' will educate young people about the commercial nature of these posts where content is created in return for remuneration. This will correct the false perception that influencers receive free goods from large brands, leading to a more informed understanding of the industry among young people.

Much of the challenge arises from widespread misunderstanding of what amounts to a counterfeit product. This confusion can support rationalisations to normalise the buying of counterfeit products and can be exploited by certain influencers to promote these items. Many of the recommendations focus on the need to develop a counter-narrative based on a clear and coherent understanding of what a counterfeit product is, and the risks involved in purchasing them.    

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