Strolling recently down a heaving shopping street off the Djemma al Fna square in Marrakech, I did a double-take before a stall as I realized that what I thought had been an innocuous tube of Crest toothpaste was not quite what it seemed.
Peering in a bit, I saw that the tube, despite being decked out in the familiar color and logo trappings of admittedly the simplest tube of Crest (no extreme tartar control here, folks), actually read "Crust."
My first reaction, as I stood there dumbfounded and jostled by passing shoppers, was to remember that I, as a circa 1974 collector of "Wacky Packages" (those ecstatically juvenile takeoffs on your parent's favorite brands), possessed a sticker of an ersatz product named you got it Crust toothpaste.
So lost was I in this reverie that I did not stop to buy a tube of Crust, or even to examine its provenance. A photograph I took is the only suggestion I was not under some Maghreb trance, like the charmed snakes in the marketplace. Needless to say, I do not think the buyer was likely to find a 1-800 "comments or suggestions" number on the back of a Crust box.
But questions swirled like dust: Why had this one-time Wacky Package, decades after the fact, landed in North Africa (I would later learn you can buy Crust in Libya as well) as a knockoff? Who was behind this strange bit of design deception, and, more importantly, did they not realize the negative connotations of their word choice? (Of course, Crist might not play so well in those markets either.) And yet perhaps that negative connotation was lost anyway on consumers for whom English would be a second language, if that but in that case, what connotation was there to begin with? Were the bootleggers playing off of a commanding market share of Crest Toothpaste in the Moroccan market? Had Procter and Gamble succeeded in imbuing Crest with sufficient prestige and glamour to necessitate an imitator?
I was standing at the funhouse-mirror-lined vortices of the global economy: The Knockoff Zone.
We are all well familiar with knockoffs. Though the practice seems to have been corralled a bit in New York, one can still readily find, about as easily as vendors selling coffee in Grecian themed cups, young African men selling fake Rolexes to shoppers who, one hopes, are willingly in on the delusion. I have come across fake Nikes across the globe, from the Itaewon district of Seoul to a flea market in central Havana, and I trust everyone has a similar story. It's like some kind of ripple in the flat-world matrix we all wear the same things, except when they're not the same things.
Knockoffs of luxury fashion goods make perfect economic sense. Since a comparatively small portion of the product's overall cost is dedicated to making it, and much of the rest is allocated to its design and conception and extensive marketing the whole aura that makes a counterfeit good "worth" the cost the knock-off artists can simply take advantage of all the advance work that has been done by Gucci or Prada and generate a copy, often in facilities suspiciously close to where the actual products are made.
In some places, such as China, where I'm headed next week, the artifice has been taken to such extremes it seems as if it must be some kind of fifth pillar of the economy: Let a thousand imitations bloom. As James Kynge reports in his new book China Shakes the World: The Rise of a Hungry Nation, in cities like Chongqing one can find groups of stores "Croc Croc" and "Crocodile of the Yangtze" selling fake Lacoste gear. Kynge quotes one clerk who steadfastly maintains that "the French and the Chinese crocodile are the same brand. They have merged."
It seems easy to explain the appeal of buying otherwise unattainable aspirational goods, an implied desire whose tenacious hold can often be seen in a simple but striking way when one looks at a photograph in the newspaper of some sort of social or labor strife in the developing world: There, amidst the protest signs or even weapons, one sees the caps and t-shirts emblazoned with Western brands and sports logos, competing for message space.
But a tube of toothpaste? This sort of boggles the mind. If there really was such a wellspring of goodwill and faith built up in Morocco towards Crest toothpaste, why would one want to buy something that is precisely not Crest? Does Crust somehow sail along on positive word-of-mouth, some kind of viral marketing? If the buying of Crust is some sort of trying to keep up with the Joneses effort, why bother for a name brand of a commoditized product that will only be seen by you as you brush your teeth in your home? Wouldn't that money be better spent on a fake Rolex you can brandish on the avenue?
Somewhere, there is a factory producing whatever Crust toothpaste actually is, and there is a factory actually making the "wacky packaging" for Crust. Seeing that tube made me realize, as I should have done sooner, the full extent of the strange subterranean replicant economy, where one letter of difference in a product serves as some kind of implied defense against outright counterfeiting charges forcing, instead, the parent company to mount an expensive copyright fight in a foreign court.
One wonders in the abstract the real harm of the knockoff trade, since the consumers buying them are not choosing them over the real thing they are buying them because they are not able to buy the real thing. Yet those who find a kind of underdog justice in buying knockoffs, a sticking it to the corporate man bit of rebellion or even some kind of altruistic gesture toward the developing world, would do well to read journalist Tim Phillips' new book, Knockoff: The Deadly Trade in Counterfeit Goods. Counterfeiting, Phillips says, accounts for nearly 10% of the global economy, worth almost $500 billion annually. On eBay, he says, a counterfeit good is removed from auction every 20 seconds. It runs the gamut, from aerospace parts to those very same tubes of toothpaste. The problems with the trade are legion, from the issues of where exactly the money behind the industry is coming from or going to (drugs and terrorism are among its bedfellows), to the question of under what conditions these goods are made. If one finds the developing-world assembly facilities of an image-conscious global brand to be wanting in terms of pay or worker rights, one can equally imagine the conditions in a factory that has no accountability to anyone neither shareholders nor media nor NGO monitors and churns out goods whose prices seem impossibly low.
To return to the idea of Wacky Packages, part of their appeal was based on the visceral immediacy of the products they spoofed. Which is where design enters into it, because it was a designer who came up with that memorable logo, that seductive packaging you could recognize in a heartbeat even if, on closer examination, it turned out to be not quite what it seemed. And so I am curious what designers make of the whole knockoff issue. Has anyone out there been "wacky packaged"? Is there a kind of perverse pride that the product they helped bring into the world is being paid homage to, after a fashion, like a musician whose tune is chosen for a mash-up? Or is it image piracy on a par with illegal downloading and DVD burning? Or is it simply one of the costs of doing business in a global economy, of putting something out there and not knowing how distorted the echo will be when it comes back?