Fake brands and free watches

This week in friction, Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic, The Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed.

He investigates how his social media feeds have become populated with ads for clothes, one of which he takes a punt on, with disappointing results. The story isn’t why is the coat so bad, but how is this a business? And it’s enabled by a soup of digital services (Instagram, Shopify, Facebook tracking pixels, retargeting tools, and reverse image searching, …) that enable people to sell physical goods to a global market from anywhere, with no capital investment:

I went to the West Louis Instagram account and found 20 total posts, all made between June and October of 2017. Most are just pictures of clothes. Doing a reverse image search, it’s clear that the Business-Man Windproof Long Coat is sold throughout the world on a variety of retail websites. Another sweatshirt I purchased through Instagram—I tracked down no less than 15 shops selling the identical item. I bought mine from Thecuttedge.life, but I could have gotten it from Gonthwid, Hzijue, Romwe, HypeClothing, Manvestment, Ladae Picassa, or Kovfee. Each very lightly brands the sweatshirt as its own, but features identical pictures of a mustachioed, tattooed model. That a decent percentage of the brands are unpronounceable in English just adds to the covfefe of it all.

All these sites use a platform called Shopify, which is like the WordPress or Blogger of e-commerce, enabling completely turnkey online stores. Now, it has over 500,000 merchants, a number that’s grown 74 percent per year over the last five years. On the big shopping days around Thanksgiving, they were doing $1 million in transactions per minute. And the “vast majority” of the stores on the service are small to medium-sized businesses, the company told me.

Shopify serves as the base layer for an emerging ecosystem that solders digital advertising through Facebook onto the world of Asian manufacturers and wholesalers who rep their companies on Alibaba and its foreigner-friendly counterpart, AliExpress.

It’s a fascinating new retail world, a mutation of globalized capitalism that’s been growing in the cracks of mainstream commerce.

Madrigal cites Jenny Odell’s piece, “There’s No Such Thing As A Free Watch” (PDF), as “the touchstone investigation into this world”. She investigates the frictionless supply chain and digital services that enable ‘fake’ watch brands to profit by giving away free watches – but brings it back to the core enabler which is branding and ‘storytelling’ itself:

Maybe this explains what’s so galling to people about the Folsom & Co. not really-scam: It simply lays bare the categorical deception at the heart of all branding and retail. The different watch values are, in the strictest sense, speech acts: the watch is $29.99 because someone said it’s $29.99. It’s $29.99 because a certain person is wearing it on Instagram; it’s $29.99 because it’s photographed next to annel and a Chemex. While “Bradley” of “Bradley’s men’s shop” may not be the most eshed-out character, he – and the entire existence of Folsom & Co., So coastal, etc. – are examples of the now-household term, “brand storytelling.” And the internet makes it possible for anyone to tell any story, about anything, from anywhere.