Tom Vanderbilt | Essays

Wacky Packages of the Global Economy

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?

Posted in: Business

Comments [21]

interesting post. when i was in egypt years ago, my favorite wacky package product was the M&Ms knockoff called 'S&Ms'. i kept it pinned in my cube for several years before a hungry coworker ate them oblivious to the packaging. he said they tasted like the real thing albeit a bit stale...

If you google "crust toothpaste flickr" you'll get a hit that shows a better look at similar packaging. Note that the word "NOW" in the upper left corner could possibly be a "wacky packaging" of the word "NEW".

But surely if the buyer can understand "Good Quality TOOTHPASTE with FREE TOOTHBRUSH", they'd realize that "Crust" is really not a good word to be associated with the product? Or maybe the packaging itself has become so iconic that it simply stands for "toothpaste" without implying the particular "Crest" brand?

Plenty of knock-offs are faithful forgeries that go largely undetected, but there is some spark of humanity in the Panosonics and the Crusts of the world. It's like automiatic poetry—the babble of the market that can actually make you stop and consider how arbitrary the whole thing is. I take the Prada store in Soho for granted, but the Frada handbag for sale on Canal Street actually makes me think. That's seems horribly distorted to me after reading your piece. I guess we just become immune to the absurdity of the real thing and it takes that cross-cultural translation to make it fresh again. It's like the famous story of when Chevrolet launched the Nova in Mexico only to realize that they were selling a car whose name meant "doesn't go."
dmitri siegel

How about 'knocking-off' an entire company!?
Andrew Haig

"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."

im not exactly sure what you are trying to justify here. Somehow this post leaves an aftertaste of jingoism for me. the production and sale of 'crust' boggles the mind? why are knockoffs made in general? for one simple reason, people can't afford the 'real thing', because many people in the 'developing world' are very poor compared to people in the first world, especially in africa, and people who dont have the economic means still wish to participate in the global (american) economy. im not familiar with "Crust", but i do know of similar "pirated" products in other developing countries. it would be interesting to know how much that tube of "crust" cost. a tube of "crest" can cost $3 in the U.S. There are a lot of countries where that is still one and a half day's minimum wage. So while western tourists travelling in developing countries buying these products get to have a 'wacky package' experience and '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', locals buying those products get to brush their teeth, wear designer clothes, and drink soda. and also, 'wacky packages' as you call them ride the equity of the brands they knock off, so people buying these knock offs get the sense they are participating in the global econoomy as consumers just like everybody else in the world.


Here in Brasil, counterfeit products wrapped in unusual packages are everywhere. We have commercial centers (like galleries or little malls) where you´ll find only products such as BOCA (Nike) clothing, PHONY (Sony) and AIMA (Aiwa) eletronics, and an infinity of "parallel" products, which are identical (or at least meant to be) copies of the original products, like PlayStation games, music albums, softwares, even clothing and - especially - toys.

These products are common and usual to the major population, they´re already a strong part of our culture. One thing that was not discussed here is the outrageous taxes applied by the government, which can make a product have a final price which is often three times the original cost in dollars, euros or pounds. Worse, brazilian companies overrate their products because of the high prices on the imported ones, leaving no other choice for the poor population than buying counterfeit products.

About the "whacky packaging", we DON´T have designers developing products or packages for the counterfeit industry. Designers are considered expensive and unnecessary for any small business, not to mention the "piracy" industry. Even when a large company is about to release a new product, they opt for international designers or agencies, or even huge braziliam agencies to plan their products visually. A planned product and package design on counterfeit products is almost never applied.

However, this kind of visual expression is widely known and seriously taken under consideration by most brazilian designers and respected typographers. The "underground" design, which lives in stickers, whacky packaging, signs and posters; graffiti and pixação is influencing design jobs not only here in Brasil, but all over the world.

I´m not questioning the social and economic consequences of "parallel" or "alternative" industry in society. But without a doubt, this market is a vivid part of the developing countries culture, and in the end, all culture will and should influence design itself. So, good or bad to the economy, the parallel business brings, without a doubt, positive bagage for design, art and culture, which help shaping the personality of a nation.

If you want to get an idea of the parallel/piracy market in Brasil, check out Mercado Livre, an auction website, or StandCenter, one of the most famous shop galleries in São Paulo.
André PJM

In response to Manuel, I think it's rather jingoistic to think the only economy worth participating in is the "American global" economy, or a pirated version thereof. But you're focusing only on consumption. What I'm really interested in however is the production of knockoffs. These are made, typically, by operations that contribute nothing back to tax rolls or shareholders or anything else that might contribute to real economic growth and a subsequent betterment of conditions for everyone in a society -- and they're made by workers outside the realm of a regulatory structure, so who knows what abuses are possible? Real economic development requires legitimate institutions, and it's suggestive I think that knockoffs flourish most in particularly corrupt or authoritarian regimes.
Tom Vanderbilt

I saw some KIKE shoes in Guatemala. Good thing there aren't too many Jews there.

I think I'll start up my own "wacky package" of a clothing line to be sold exclusively in China, N. Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. Here it is...

"Commy Boy."

Any venture capitalists out there interested?
Joe Moran

My apologies for being glib previously.

One thing to consider is the old cliche -- 'imitation is the highest form of flattery.' Should designers be flattered to be "knocked-off?"

Many painters, writers, deisgners, etc., imitate and copy the masters in their field *to learn something* in the process. I've seen young and old artists doing their own "studies" of a Rembrandt or Picasso -- or writers writing a story in the style of Hemmingway or Faulkner -- just to learn from the experience and the "doing."

In countries where there are no laws protecting copyright or intellectual property, anything is fair game. What can we do? Sue the world? Even here in America there are similar problems.

I sympathize with artists in oppressed or totalitarian nations, as well as the people who need to buy toilet paper and tooth paste for their families. Who am I to tell some guy in China or Brazil they can't have the best packaged toothpaste out there? They have kids, wives, parents, girlfriends and lives to live too.

We can't pick our skin color, our parents or the country of our birth. But when we "grow up" we can make our own choices, for better or worse. And then we have to live with them, for better or worse.
Joe Moran

"Many painters, writers, designers, etc., imitate and copy the masters in their field *to learn something* in the process."

Alternately, and no less significantly, many creative professionals look to the "street", to amateurs, in order to produce work with more apparent relevance or "authenticity"
Gary Boodhoo

There is space in the global economy for everyone. I doubt that Crust is eating into Procter & Gamble's profit margin any more than other toothpastes sold in Marrakech. The truth is that people there very well know the difference, and they'll pay the premium for Crest if they can and want.

Procter & Gamble could get litigious about it, but is it worth their time and money?

As designers, do we really need to hold branding as a sacred cow? Did the person who came up with the Crust package take food out of our mouths? I assume not, as we're all staring at a computer screen right now, a luxury in itself.

I'm the journalist that wrote the book referenced in Tom's original post. One of the conclusions I reached is that the knockoff business is damaging to developing countries specifically because in economies where there are knockoffs everywhere, there's no mechanism to reward original creative work and no way to tell if something actually does the job it claims to do. On the first point, I recently spoke to a Brazilian software developer: he could compete against Microsoft, because his products were one-tenth of the price. But he couldn't compete against knockoff Microsoft, which sold for the same price as his products. Onthe second point: in countries where literacy is low, recognisable design in packaging serves a purpose. Knockoffs like Crust are using those signals to sell a product that's of a lesser quality. We all shrug when it's toothpaste, but in Africa counterfeit medicines sold using the same technique are a death sentence to people who can't read well enough to spot that the product isn't real.
Tim Phillips

Those are certainly good points of contention. Thank you for putting real issues on the table.

Thanks to Tim Phillips for bringing his expertise on the subject and two salient points that had not yet been broached. Logos and branding seem to hardly scratch the surface of issues these products raise.
Tom Vanderbilt

its jingoistic to think that the american global economy is the only one worth participating in? how did japan rise after world war II (aside from the assistance provided by the US government)? one way was by marketing honda in the United States during the oil crisis of the 70s, when US automakers wouldnt make smaller cars. and what about china? it provided cheap labor for the production of american consumer goods for a generation: i remember almost everything i saw or wore growing up was 'made in china'. the only way 'developing countries' can come up in the world is by foreign investment from first world nations, and first world nations opening their markets to developing nations' products on large scales. the only people refusing to participate in this kind of economy are revolutionaries like fidel castro and subcommandante marcos of the zapatistas, and terrorist groups such as al qaeda.

i dont doubt that this sort of merchandising proliferates in corrupt, poor countries and that it is detrimental for local economies. im only saying that there is an economic global structure that allows for this sort of thing to happen. speaking of abuses, the united states has a history of dominating markets around the globe, and has opened some of these markets through violent means (war). historically, one can look at the United Fruit company and the latin american 'banana republics' to see how these situations of dependency are created. in current events, you have the iraq war that is the US vying for control of Oil Reserves by any means necessary.

i can't claim any expertise on this as im a graphic designer and not a political scientist or economist. but im educated enough to know that 'knock-offs' are a symptom of a larger economic structure. and it doesnt mean that i can't enjoy 'wacky projects' either, ive seen a lot of them in places ive travelled to, and have found them funny, in a sort of cynical and self-implicating sort of way.

Just because it is a knock-off, doesn't mean it is illegal.
At school, we learned there where three type of products you could buy in a supermarket. A, B and C brands.
A brands are the most expensive and people buy it for the percieved quality and image. They are also marketed directly to potential buyers outside the supermarket. (for ex. TV)
B brands are the inhouse brands. The carry the supermarket logo and are cheaper then the A brands.
C brands are the discount brands and are the cheapest of the three. They funny thing with C brands is that they try to mimic their A brand counterparts. The name and packaging will look similar at first glans until closer inspection reveals there are small differences.
The reasoning is probably that if you can't afford real Coca Cola, you can still drink the cheaper Poco Cola in public with little fear of being found out.

Chances are, the A, B and C brands are actually all made by the same company. They are just using this scheme to maximise their profits.

One thing that this brings home to me is that branding and counterfeiting are closely related: I see many books on branding that treat the subject as separate from product quality or authenticity. I think this is a dangerous path, and that companies who ignore the threat to the brand of countefeits are taking a huge risk. If nothing else, it eminds us of the power of brands to influence the behaviour of people like us.
Tim Phillips

Aren't these knockoff products what the late Jane Jacobs called "import substitutions"? She claimed that this was the first stage in developing alocal manufacturing economy.

Cities, she argued, start out as distribution points, collecting local resources and distributing imported manufactured and cultural goods. The knockoff companies would start by producing local versions of global products and would eventually become full fledged manufacturers. Then they would build their own distribution networks, upstream and downstream.

What exactly is the intellectual property in Crest toothpaste? The formula? The use of mint flavoring? The packaging? The Western dental hygiene regimen? The precise viscosity of the paste? What exactly is being violated? Should Moroccans have to use tooth powder from a can for a certain number of years before they are allowed to use toothpaste from a tube?

While I gather that the production of Crest toothpaste is highly automated and the workers involved have decent wages and benefits, expensive brand names are not synonymous with good working conditions. Are the working conditions at the sweatshop producing Kikes all that much different from those at the sweatshop producing Nikes? Consider that the workshop cranking out Kikes is producing for the local market and controlled locally, while the workshop cranking out Nikes is producing under contract for export under the control of a foreign entity.

I actually consider knockoffs to be a good sign. It means that their is an aspirational caste, and more importantly, that there is a responsive business sector trying to meet local needs. I wonder if we still be laughing at the Crust toothpaste guys in 50 years.

I'm sorry it's a bit late, but posts like the last one drive me completely bananas. Where is your evidence that 'the workshop cranking out Kikes is producing for the local market and controlled locally'? The point is that these workshops are by definition operating outside legal controls, and because the 'local markets' have no idea where the products were produced, or by who, there's no 'local control'. I'm not saying that the big brands are above criticism, but at least, as consumers, we can have some control over their behaviour.

Crest may not be particularly innovative. The brand is simply used as an assurance that what it claims to have in the tube is actually there. I've seen counterfeit cigarettes which contain rat droppings, toenail clippings and arsenic. I've seen counterfeit vodka that would kill you if you drank half a bottle. I've seen counterfeit cancer drugs that are literally tap water. I've seen counterfeit cellphone batteries that sometimes explode when they are used. I don't think Philip Morris, United Distillers, Glaxo or Nokia are above criticism, but what is so 'aspirational' about these knockoffs?

Counterfeits directly kill hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world every year. There is no direct path from producing dangerous counterfeits to producing either high quality knockoffs or legitimate original goods - because safe/legitimate goods are harder to make and less profitable. Just because multinationals abuse developing markets doesn't mean we should tolerate knockoffs in them. It's just too simplistic.
Tim Phillips

A couple of years ago I found myself in Cairo for New Year's Eve - Cairo's pretty dry but there are some underground liquor shops selling moonshine. We were thrilled to buy a bottle of "Johnnie Wadi Red Table" -- the bottle was an exact replica of Johnnie Walker Red Label -- the label that was just like the real one with some doctored lettering. And it tasted a lot like gasoline-soaked old cheese.

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