Facebook AdEarlier this week, Sapna Maheshwari and Beimeng Fu at Buzzfeed took a deep dive into the world overseas clothing companies.

The way the scam works is pretty straightforward: Unscrupulous companies, mostly located in China, will use stolen images to promote all kinds of clothing from swimsuits to evening wear at deeply discounted prices.

The photos, generally taken from other retailers, popular Instagram users or magazines, are often not representative of the actual product they are selling. They may be similar, but the final product is often radically different including a different cut, pattern or material. To make matters worse, the sold product is often a much lower quality and, according to several reports, many suffer from a strong chemical smell.

This has led to a tremendous backlash against these companies, including thousands of negative reviews and countless investigative reports.

But that hasn’t stopped the companies from doing brisk business. Powered largely by Facebook ads, the sites continue to attract new buyers and, according to dress shop owners dealing with the aftermath, disappointing a large number of those customers.

However, fashion isn’t the only industry that has a serious problem with questionable companies plagiarizing marketing content. Whether you’re buying financial services, solar panels or just about anything else, there’s likely a problem with plagiarism of marketing materials and it’s time for buyers and legitimate companies to fight back.

Images, Text and Designs

Woman surfing InternetThe issue is fairly simple. On the Internet, almost anyone can create a business and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the largest competitors in their field. For the cost of a website and some ads, you can compete with almost anyone.

This can be great when a small, legitimate business finds ways to needle at or even overtake entrenched players. The web can allow entrepreneurs to break into difficult fields and revolutionize stagnant industries.

However, it can be a serious problem when less-than-ethical companies begin to take shortcuts not just in their business, but in their marketing.

In many ways, content creation is still the great equalizer. It takes time, skill and/or money to produce high-quality, informative content for a site. Whether it’s taking great pictures of products, writing marketing copy or even the design and layout of the site itself, it requires a lot of effort to fill a site with great material.

Unfortunately, many sites take shortcuts here and simply look to their established competitors. There they do one of the following:

  1. Attempt to duplicate the site as much as possible.
  2. Create an original site but copy images, text or more from the site for their own.
  3. Pattern their site after the original, using the same format, including the same information and pages, but rewriting most or all of the content.

The first two are clear cases of copyright infringement and happen with frightening regularity. Upstarts, usually one or two person companies with little time or money invested, simply lift from their competitors in hopes of jumpstarting a successful business.

While the third isn’t likely a copyright infringement, unless the rewriting is very clear, it poses issues of its own. When multiple sites in a field follow the same format, it’s hard for any to stand out. One of the key reasons for creating unique marketing content is to create something unique and useful, this behavior blunts that.

But while this is bad news for legitimate competitors, it’s even worse news for consumers. When websites are the only easy way consumers have to compare sites, these kinds of shortcuts hide the companies that are likely to do poor quality work.

After all, if a company can’t be bothered to create their own content (or at least pay to have it created), then it’s likely they’ll take similar shortcuts with customers.

In short, if the Internet is the great equalizer, then plagiarism, just as in the classroom, is an attempt to tilt the playing field to favor those without the interest or talent to create their own work.

Industries Most at Risk

Industry ImageAll of this begs one simple question: Which industries are most at risk for marketing plagiarism?

While all types of business are vulnerable to marketing plagiarism, some are clearly more so than others.

The biggest factor in determining how large of an issue it will likely be is the barriers to entry for the marketplace. Basically, the more difficult it is to establish a new competitor, the less likely marketing plagiarism will be an issue. That’s because, if it takes a lot of time and capital to start up, then the less likely they are to cut corners when it comes to marketing.

For example, you’re much less likely to see such plagiarism in auto manufacturing than you are virtual assistant. It takes a lot more resources to begin making cars than it does to offer services as a virtual assistant, which is why that field often has such high levels of marketing plagiarism.

The problem for consumers is that it’s difficult to tell which industries have higher barriers. It might seem difficult, for example, to open up an online clothing store, but, with the right suppliers, it’s possible to do so without even taking on inventory through drop-shipping. This means that anyone who can set up an online store can, theoretically, become a online clothing retailer.

On the web, there are very few businesses that can’t be entered trivially. While that’s great news for entrepreneurs, it raises the incidents of plagiarism and copyright infringement.

Advice for Consumers

For consumers, unfortunately the warning is buyer beware. If you’re working with a new website or even a new provider on a familiar marketplace, take the time to check their marketing material.

Run a phrase or two of their text through Google and also do a reverse image search on their promotional photos. It takes only a couple of seconds and can tell you a great deal about the company.

Bear in mind that, if you see copying, it might not be ripped off from a competitor. It could be stock content that is provided by the supplier. However, you’ll know, at the very least, that they aren’t creating their own marketing material and you may want to see who else is offering what you’re after. You might even find a better price.

Sadly, few consumers do this, especially when buying something seen as a deal. For better or worse, low prices often make consumers trust companies they shouldn’t, even when the deal is clearly too good to be true.

Advice for Businesses

This one is straightforward, enforce your copyright.

Search for your marketing material, find infringements and remove them either with the host or with the search engines.

The problem here is two-fold. First, competitors misusing your work gain an unfair advantage of you because they don’t spend the time, money or energy creating the content. That’s resources they can spend elsewhere on their business or just lowering prices.

To make matters worse, duplicative text between similar sites can hurt your search engine rankings, especially if Google treats your competitor as the original.

But the more long-term problem is the damage that this can do to your industry. If enough unscrupulous companies are allowed to thrive on the backs of stolen content, eventually, the reputation of all businesses in the field get hurt.

Right now, a lot of people are very skeptical about buying clothes from overseas companies, especially those advertising on Facebook, because of the actions of the ones above. That type of attitude and uncertainty hurts all in the field, regardless of whether they plagiarize marketing material or ship shoddy products.

It’s easy and tempting to turn a blind eye to infringement when it doesn’t seem to be directly hurting you, but such plagiarism is a cancer not just to the company, but the entire field. That bodes well for no one over the long haul.

Bottom Line

Marketing plagiarism isn’t going away any time soon and, until it does, legitimate companies need to carefully monitor their work and consumers need to check the content of the companies they are buying from.

If checking for the origin of images or text before making a purchase became more commonplace, at the very least scammers and unethical companies would have to work a bit harder to trick consumers. Sadly, that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Instead, the best thing a smart consumer can do is check for themselves and let others be taken in. For businesses, they only thing that they can do is tend to their gardner and defend what they have created.

None of this will solve the larger problem, but at least there are ways for consumers and legitimate businesses to protect themselves.

Disclosure: Previously, I worked with PromGirl, mentioned in the Buzzfeed article, but was not responsible for the DMCA notice referenced.

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