According to a new TV feature by the ZDF magazine ZDFzoom, counterfeiters are often using the Instagram algorithm to target consumers with ads and posts about their illicit products. The ZDF investigates this in a feature published in March, for which the television reporters searched for suspected sellers of counterfeits on Instagram and experienced for themselves how easy it can be to purchase counterfeits via the network. In addition, the reporters talked to influencers and experts from the business and get background information from an anonymous insider with contacts into the criminal networks.
During a street survey, ZDF comes across many young people who openly consider wearing fakes and know exactly where to find them. Often mentioned is the social media platform Instagram, operated by the US‑based Meta group, which is also known for its Facebook and WhatsApp networks. As with many other platforms, the Instagram algorithm is set to show users more of what they had already clicked on before, as the ZDF report explains. For example, a person searching for brand-name sneakers will see more advertisement for these products – and for respective counterfeits.
And the trade with counterfeit luxury sneakers seems to be particularly lucrative: Sneaker influencer Willy Iffland estimates in an interview in the TV feature that Instagram, along with TikTok, is one of the most successful platforms in generating so‑called ‘hypes’; it can thus make specific goods particularly desirable. Felipe Thomaz, professor for marketing at Oxford University, calls Instagram a kind of funnel, as it brings many and diverse people into one place. For counterfeiters, this results in a mass of potential customers, who may not be able or willing to afford the hyped original articles. These are then automatically addressed more often with the advertisements for counterfeits due to the algorithm.
Thomaz also compares the professionalism of such counterfeiting groups with that of large corporations. Fighting them is apparently difficult, among other things because their business operations are distributed across different countries, explains the lawyer Constantin Rehaag. What might make the fight against such counterfeiting schemes even more difficult, according to the ZDF report, is that German authorities do not always seem to be in agreement. When asked by ZDF, both the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt) and the Federal Police (Bundespolizei) refer to customs, which in turn do not consider themselves responsible. This is because, according to customs, they can only act once the owners of the infringed trademarks have become active.
ZDF also asked the technology company Meta, which operates the social media network Instagram, about their measures against counterfeiting and gave them a list of shops that the reporting team had contacted. Meta answered by referring to the company’s guidelines, which do not tolerate the sale of counterfeits. The shops found during the research for the TV report have been deleted, but others will probably still be found on the platform.
The half-hour ZDFzoom report (German language) can be viewed online at ZDF. It is not the first recent ZDF report about counterfeiting and brand protection: The broadcaster had already reported on the business with counterfeit products in September 2019 and on the production, distribution, and combating of counterfeits in October 2022.