The mainstreaming of pleasure products is proving to be a blessing and a curse for the sex toy industry. As the demand for pleasure products continues to grow, manufacturers are seeing an increase of counterfeiters selling everything from low-quality and possibly toxic knock-offs to perfectly copied replicas of the brands that have worked hard to legitimize and cultivate the industry. With incidents of product piracy dating back to more than a decade ago, the industry is now cracking down on counterfeiters that are negatively impacting their business and becoming more brazen in their shady practices.
“Our industry is not the only one being affected; it is happening in many industries, spanning various genres,” Colvin said. “In fact, the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition estimates the value of global trade in counterfeit and pirated goods was $1.77 trillion in 2015.”
The biggest thing that our customers can do to thwart the presence of knock-off products is to believe, support and trust in brands. -Chad Braverman, Doc Johnson
And it’s not just business that suffers from counterfeiters. Colvin says, “Not only do counterfeit goods damage our brand, but they also put the safety of the users at risk. The material and motor quality is unknown, which can be an issue due to the nature of these products. The consumer has no idea about the product they are using in an intimate way, which can lead to a variety of issues.”
Pipedream Products agrees that the real problem surrounding counterfeit toys is safety. “Pirates don’t operate within the arena of legitimate manufacturing,” the company said. “Their products and facilities are low quality, unsafe, unlicensed, uninsured, untested, unregulated — what are these products made of, who’s making them, under what conditions, and what authority is looking at any of this? Who’s doing the testing? The answers to those questions remained unanswered — but raise another one: How can anyone sell these kinds of products to their customers?”
Product piracy can take several forms — from blatantly trying to pass off a cheap-quality counterfeit as an original to using recognizable branding and even company names to market similar products.
“There are two types of knock-off products,” Doc Johnson COO/CCO Chad Braverman said. “The first category consists of products that are being passed off as the originals they copy, down to knocking off even the packaging art and the original manufacturer’s brand name. This is mostly done online; and there’s no real way to tell that it’s a knock-off unless you have the actual product to compare it to and see the difference, whether that’s in the quality of the product, the material used, the longevity of the item, or any number of other discrepancies.
“The second type of knock-off is when someone just copies an item of the original manufacturer’s in likeness, and uses a generic brand name at a cheaper price point,” Braverman continued. “Ultimately, these kind of knock-offs do hurt a number of different people. Replicas impact the brands they are stealing from in a negative way by loss of sales and market saturation, but they also harm the pleasure products community as a whole in a less obvious way. Our industry has always been built on resourcefulness and creativity. By supporting knock-offs of any kind, we end up supporting a practice that is actively harmful to the pleasure products industry and our community as a whole.”
At the summer edition of ANME in 2014, Porn Guardian co-founder Peter Phinney introduced the Product Piracy Pilot Program in collaboration with the Free Speech Coalition. As a division of Porn Guardian, Phinney seeks out and exposes counterfeit merchandise, as well as removes it from online merchant platforms.
“We monitor online sales and auction and we report counterfeit when we see it,” Phinney said. “We work with a few manufacturers. We are always interested in working with others.
“It’s becoming a bigger problem day-by-day. A few years ago, we used to see an occasional eBay auction selling counterfeit sex toys. The frequency was about once every two or three months. Now we see them all the time, and there are sellers on Amazon selling counterfeit pleasure products as well. Some manufacturers even have their own websites.”
Phinney has become familiar with what he calls the “gray market,” which consists of sellers that may have at one point had a business partnership with the manufacturers that they’re now ripping off.
“People who in some cases once had a licensing arrangement with a manufacturer and when that ideal went south for some reason, the seller simply began producing knock-offs and selling those,” Phinney said. “Sometimes the counterfeit products are sold under a slightly different product name, but manufactured items in the same factory as the genuine product, using the same or similar molds, with slightly altered packaging — in some cases only very slightly altered.
“We also see the off-shore manufacturer skimming product off the line and selling it under a generic brand name in slightly altered packaging, sometimes in new colors or with slightly modified features,” Phinney says. “The market online is loaded with this kind of counterfeit product.”
Phinney also warns of counterfeiters that operate right in the face of manufacturers.
“The people who do this outside the U.S. are very brazen actually,” he said. “It’s not unusual to see a team of people with cellphones and cameras (and cellphone cameras) moving carefully upland down the aisles at adult trade shows in L.A. and Las Vegas, going from booth to booth taking detailed photos of the products on display, often working as a team with one or two people distracting the booth attendants while one or more others snap photos of products, packaging, and even directions and inserts, then they move on to the next booth. Within two or three months, knock-offs begin to appear on the market.”
According to Sportsheets founder Tom Stewart, he’s been noticing an influx in product piracy during the past five to 10 years.
“These fraudulent items take money away from the manufacturers in the form of lost sales and potential replacement products,” Stewart said. “We get calls frequently from consumers who thought they were buying a Sportsheets product and got a lower quality knock-off instead. They call us. We have them send all the info to us as well as the product and then we replace it for them. Our goal is to make sure we keep our customers satisfied.”
Nikki Yates, corporate director of A.L. Enterprises, the manufacturers of CB-X Male Chastity, says she’s been noticing counterfeits for more than 14 years.
“We were even involved in some groundbreaking lawsuits regarding keyword usage,” Yates said. “This is a subject I am passionate about because counterfeiters tell us this is a victimless crime. One even told me they were doing me a favor by getting people to buy the cheap knockoff and the purchaser would then return to me to purchase a quality authentic product when the fake broke. My response to that is that if the consumer thinks the cheaply made knockoff is authentic it will adversely impact my brand because they will assume we made subpar product. The financial impact on companies and employees selling authentic products and the safety of consumers is huge worldwide.”
According to Braverman, manufacturing in the U.S. has prevented Doc Johnson from directly being affected by overseas counterfeiters.
“In general, just speaking as a member of the pleasure products industry, it is a very concerning situation — and it is something that is a major problem for our industry as a whole,” Braverman said. “You have customers out there being duped by counterfeiters that are using other companies’ brand names, trying to piggyback off the brand equity that those companies have built over the years, while peddling a product of lower quality. So what happens is, you end up with a customer out there who wasted their money on a shoddy product, who is now upset with the company they believe is responsible for that low-quality product. So it truly hurts everyone all the way up and down the food chain.”
Colvin says CalExotics’ products, brand name and trademarks are being pirated across the board. “We are seeing our best-selling products being targeted most frequently,” she said. “Jack Rabbit and Butterfly Kiss are among the top-selling and top pirated products with respect to trademark infringement and misrepresentation. Counterfeit operations are also using our brand name, CalExotics or California Exotic Novelties, to lure consumers into buying counterfeit products.”
Similarly, Pipedream Products says that its most pirated toys are its award-winners, including Pipedream Extreme, Icicles, Fetish Fantasy Series collections and Anal Fantasy Collection.
Magic Wand, which has been on the market for 30 years, says it has seen counterfeits of its original design. The company informs consumers about how to spot imitators on its website, MagicWandOriginal.com/fakes/.
“Counterfeit products are typically of substandard quality, don’t deliver power and aren’t durable,” Vibratex Manager Dan Martin said. “They may even break the first time they are switched on and they can be dangerous. Any consumer who happens to buy one would understandably be very disappointed.
“With the internet’s ability to connect just about any buyer and seller, piracy is going to be hard to completely stamp out. However, we have been working hard with our Japanese partner to greatly increase the speed with which we can shut down sellers of pirated goods, and we’re now at a point where we expect we’ll be able to do that much more quickly in the near future.”
Aneros reports that it has endured several instances of piracy going back as far as 10 years ago. “As in any other industry, the products that sell well and are the most popular get pirated most often,” said Brent Aldon, director of sales and marketing for Aneros. “We, along with many other companies that innovate and specialize in specific product lines or have created a successful, unique product are favorite targets of being counterfeited.
“Everyone can do their part to squash knock-offs,” Aldon continues. “While the innovators, leaders, and sex-positive companies move our industry forward with integrity — focusing on safety, intelligent design and education — companies that knock-off products impede our progress by cheating and eroding consumer confidence with inferior products. It’s irresponsible for our industry and dangerous to consumers to allow this practice to continue. Ideally, would-be knock-off artists would grow consciences and cease from partaking in these dubious activities, but I won’t hold my breath on that one.”
Although Lovehoney hasn’t yet experienced having its products knocked off, as a retailer, the company has become privy to the problem.
Bonny Hall, Lovehoney’s product director, said, “From a buyer’s perspective, buying in China, we get three or four price lists a year that feature fake products. The ones I see most frequently are Tenga, Fleshlight, We-Vibe and LELO. If it’s a new company we’ve not heard of before then we will forward the price list to our contact within these real companies to investigate further.
“As we are expanding our distribution selling brands like Fifty Shades of Grey into the Far East we are starting to look at options to ensure our brands and our customers are protected.”
Paul Jacques, Lovehoney's quality and technical manager, who formerly worked for LELO says that he’s seen how far counterfeiters will go.
“Some were so ‘obvious’ that they even put the LELO customer care details/phone number on the instruction book — it was completely fake,” he said. “Others simply copied the ID and packing style and called it ‘Lele,’ for example.
“Sadly there is very little you can do about it — you can chase down the supplier and send a ‘cease and desist’ letter and that’s about it. Getting the factory shut down is impossible in reality — they just close and re-open again. Schemes like registering your product with unique verification codes and special labels were adopted and constantly changed so people had to keep revising the fakes. But again — this was difficult, time consuming and costly.”
LELO Trade Marketing Manager Zabrina Law says the company goes to great lengths to monitor its brand “to ensure a standard of excellence is being delivered to the end-consumer,” she said. “We run a test-buy program that buys products from sellers to track and test the products for authenticity. We literally take the product apart and inspect the parts.”
Counterfeiters don’t just operate out of China, however.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have to go overseas to see our product being knocked off,” Braverman said. “It’s happening right here at home. But one of the major areas of growing concern for counterfeit products in general is on the internet, where people are attempting to take shoddy, lower-quality copies of our product, and sell them online at a lower price — right down to even using our packaging art and brand name.”
“We see it as a growing issue, and one that should not be taken lightly,” said Robert Rheaume, president of Jimmyjane and Sir Richard’s. “At Jimmyjane we have invested 10-plus years building brand equity. This means building a brand and products that people recognize and where consumers know they can trust our standards of quality, body-safe materials, etc. Pirated products want to piggyback on our hard work, and in the end, everyone loses. A consumer will not receive the experience and standards promised in a true Jimmyjane product, and they might be less likely to return to a retailer for further purchases. It impacts the consumers’ experience in a negative way, which in-turn impacts the business.”
Jimmyjane’s most pirated design is the FORM 2 — the company’s top-selling product, Rheaume said. “This item was designed by Yves Behar and Jimmyjane, and a lot of engineering and R&D went into the product. A knock-off item simply cannot provide the same experience as the original. Piracy is happening in all categories and across multiple product categories. We have even seen instances of our brand and website being used under false pretenses.”
The Screaming O Account Executive Conde Aumann says that the company’s signature vibrating rings are the most susceptible to knock-offs, however, as an already affordable product range, it’s the Screaming O’s branding that counterfeiters are after.
“Especially [susceptible to piracy is] our original award-winning Screaming O Vibrating Ring, because their designs continue to prove to be popular and profitable,” she said. “But there is less incentive for counterfeiters to knock off a brand with such affordable price points, so the most common way that Screaming O is pirated is with our branding, packaging and visual marketing.”
Unlike counterfeit fashion goods that are often sold openly on the street, counterfeit sex toys are sold almost exclusively online. Manufacturers such as Jimmyjane are working with online retailers like Amazon directly “in the hopes of getting fake products removed from their site,” Rheaume said.
“Knock-off sex toys are overwhelmingly being sold online,” Braverman said. “That’s the biggest arena for counterfeit goods to be sold because people can’t see the item or feel the item, and really have no way of judging if it’s made of an inferior quality.”
According to Braverman, while online retailers are cooperative in removing counterfeits from their site, it takes effort. “Unfortunately, the process is just too time consuming and costly to be a feasible strategy for eliminating counterfeit products on those sites,” Braverman said.
Jacques agrees, “Online traders are normally cooperative if it’s a clear case — but the onus is on you, the manufacture, to sort all that out — again time consuming and costly. Many people simply give up trying.”
Manufacturers such as CB-X say that some major online retailers are not only non-cooperative, but make it difficult to take down knock-offs from their site.
“eBay and Amazon actually do not make it as easy as they should to take down counterfeit,” Yates said. “eBay even requires an injunction from a court to enforce patent infringements. When you are dealing with dozens of very small sellers on eBay, getting an injunction for each one makes it impossible to protect yourself against patent infringement on their site. Amazon used to make you purchase a counterfeit from each seller so you could prove they were fakes before they would remove them. They have recently made it a bit more streamlined to remove product from their site, but they still haven’t made it as easy as it should be to protect your brand.”
Stewart told XBIZ that Sportsheets removes at least 40 fraudulent products per week from websites such as eBay, Alibaba and Amazon.
“We do systematic searches to find copyright and trademark infringements on a daily basis,” Stewart said. “We often find people using our images to sell imitation products or actually copied products labeled as Sportsheets,” he said. “We steadfastly pursue infringements should the perpetrator not remove postings and cease and desist the sale and marketing of these fraudulent products.”
German manufacturer Fun Factory reports it has seen copy-cats of some of its “bread and butter” designs, including its innovative Stronic vibes. According to Kristen Tribby, Fun Factory’s director of marketing and education, the company has no problem going after every offender.
“We undertake all meaningful and necessary measures to protect our intellectual property and we are willing to go after every infringement with all legal and financial consequences,” she said. “We have proven this in the past and are currently enforcing our rights in several different cases.
“Retailers can be incredibly helpful in identifying knock-off products, and consumers can avoid counterfeits by shopping with trusted retailers or buying direct with the manufacturer.”
According to Aumann, “Knock-off products can be sold pretty much anywhere, though they are most prevalent online at mass retail outlets because it’s easier for them to fall through the cracks and go unnoticed.”
The prevalence of counterfeits being sold online not only affects the manufacturer and consumer, but brick-and-mortar retailers as well.
“Competitive pricing has become an issue with brick and mortar retailers, and counterfeit goods only heighten the problem,” Colvin said. “Many consumers use brick and mortar locations as “showrooms”, where they examine the product in the store and make the purchase online. The bigger issue arises when a consumer finds a counterfeit product online for a low price. They assume the product is the same and become frustrated with the brick and mortar location because they cannot meet the price. This entire process damages the brick and mortar retailer and causes them to lose sales and their customer base.”
Among those that are going after counterfeiters vigorously is male chastity brand CB-X. The company recently announced the formation of its new brand protection department whose sole focus is finding and removing counterfeits worldwide from sites like Amazon, EBay, DHGate and Alibaba.
“The hoops these sites have created to report and remove counterfeits have become very complicated,” Yates said. “We also have a new law firm handling our brand protection. There has been success in class action suits against the Chinese manufacturers.”
Yates elaborated further on the various steps that the company has taken to vigorously defend its brand. “We also stopped selling our product direct to Amazon,” she said. “This decision was difficult, but they were devaluing our brand and were not responsive in removing counterfeits from their site. It was easier to just note on our website that there are NO authentic products being sold on Amazon or eBay.
“We recently won a case against a company in the U.K. who had hijacked our trademarks. As part of the settlement the U.K. company has now transferred these trademarks back to CB-X. While we are willing to engage in legal action against sellers of counterfeits, usually a strong cease and desist letter is sufficient in getting sellers to stop selling fakes.”
According to Colvin, keeping an eye on product reviews also has helped CalExotics monitor its brand.
“We found some of our top sellers receiving very high reviews one month, and the next month the product rating reduced dramatically,” Colvin said. “We looked closer at this and found consumers stating ‘the product I received does not look like the product image’ or ‘the product completely fell apart when I tried to use it.’ This was very concerning because the reviews were isolated to specific outlets. To investigate, we ordered product ourselves and found they were, in fact, counterfeit goods. We immediately went to the U.S. Customs department to stop the importation of these goods. This is not an isolated incident, and we are working vigorously to get it under control.”
Nasstoys also is keeping its eyes open for counterfeiters online. “I have multiple search engines sending me daily alerts on all Nasstoys specific keywords and I sort through all newly posted Internet images and sites relevant to our brands and quietly and creatively research and act upon any and all threats to our brand,” said Kathryn Hartman, sales and marketing director for Nasstoys. “Additionally, we encourage our distributors to sell only legitimate goods which is not a problem because illegitimate goods come with a high percentage rate of defectives so our Nasstoys distributors and official retailers simply won’t accept them.”
Hartman says she often uses a pseudo identity and mailing address to order suspicious items online.
“It is interesting to open the box and see what kind of packaging it arrives in,” she said. “Usually a cheesy fabric drawstring bag made of faux velvet or satin. More recently we have heard that Amazon is revising their policies for resellers regarding keyword usage and intellectual property.”
While some companies are proactively going after counterfeiters individually, many in the pleasure products B2B community say trust and support is the key to overcoming the proliferation of knock-off sex toys.
“The biggest thing that our customers can do to thwart the presence of knock-off products is to believe, support and trust in brands,” Braverman said. “Our industry needs to rally around brand names and not always be looking for a place where they can make an extra penny or two by buying a cheaper, inferior product at the expense of the companies that actually put their hard work, creativity and industry know-how into creating and selling these amazing products.”
Aumann says she looks to the support of The Screaming O’s global partners to catch counterfeits.
“We have reliable allies keeping an eye out for the Screaming O brand around the world, which is one of the ways we’re able to track and review our reach within so many international markets,” she said. “If a Screaming O knockoff is discovered in a store or somewhere online, our associates alert us and then we decide whether or not action is necessary. Most recently, we were alerted of packaging that was eerily similar to our signature red-and-white branding and being sold in a small store in Turkey. With cases like that, there isn’t a whole lot we can do about the knockoffs themselves, so we choose to act locally to find out how we can place Screaming O products into their inventories.”
Aumann continues, “On an industry level, it is essential for stores and distributors to make smart decisions when buying product. Vet your sources and confirm that they are, in fact, authorized sellers. Even a quick call to the manufacturer can help identify whether or not the person or company you’re doing business with is legit.”
“The industry helps when they ensure they are buying from authorized distributors or direct from the authentic manufacturers,” Yates said. “The consumers can help when they educate themselves on the differences of the counterfeit to the authentic products and the dangers counterfeits can pose. When the consumer is educated they usually make the choice of authentic product even though they are more expensive.”
Diamond Products Chairman and CEO Nick Orlandino says he believes that building a worldwide trade organization is the way to stop illegal counterfeits — whether it’s piracy or unsafe, unregulated products — from entering the marketplace.
Orlandino said that he is currently in the process of putting together a coalition of reputable worldwide manufacturers to build a trade organization to help fight all the above problems. (Companies that are interested in discussing or have any suggestions may contact Orlandino directly at email@example.com.)
“The industry and economic landscape is changing,” Orlandino said. “Together, we can all help do our part to ensure not only our continued success but a sustainable future.
“I started the ANME show with the intention of building an industry that promotes competition and a venue for American companies to show their wares 20 years ago in an fair environment. And look at what our industry has achieved because of this. I believe we need to take the next step now.”
Raising consumer awareness about the dangers of product piracy also can help decrease the prevalence of cheap knock-off toys. Manufacturers have advice for spotting counterfeits.
According to Rheaume, “the best advice for a consumer is to buy from a trusted retailer. We do not honor our three-year warranty for knock-off products, so when in doubt, it is best to contact our customer service team and they can confirm if the retailer is authorized.”
CB-X has produced videos to educate the consumer and reseller on the difference between authentic CB-X products and counterfeits as a tool in the fight against bootleggers, Yates said, adding that “MAP agreements also make it easier for the consumer to differentiate between fakes and authentic because they help make price one of the indicators of an authentic product.”
CalExotics recently boosted its efforts to combat counterfeiters by encouraging Amazon resellers to connect with the manufacturer’s legitimate listing — which is known as an ASIN number.
“The ASIN, Amazon Standard Identification Number, is a unique block of letters and/or numbers that identify items on Amazon,” Colvin said. “If a reseller connects to the wrong ASIN number the counterfeit activity only expands and ultimately creates larger problems. This is a major issue for CalExotics and other manufacturers within the industry. We are working to combat this issue and ask that all resellers on Amazon check their accounts to ensure they are connected to legitimate listings. If you are connected to an illegitimate listing, we encourage you to delist and reconnect with the legitimate ASIN number. This will ensure you are in compliance with our intellectual property, and you will not be subject to removal by Amazon.”
CalExotics also is encouraging retailers to promote themselves as authorized sellers.
“For resellers, it is important to promote your connection to top brands,” Colvin said. “At CalExotics, we offer free ‘Authorized CalExotics Reseller’ signs for retail locations. You can contact us directly for this sign, and other marketing support tools.”
Stewart recommends that consumers pay close attention to shipping time when purchasing a product online. “If it’s 22 days, it’s probably coming from China,” he said. “Sites in the USA generally won’t take 22 days to ship.”
Aumann says, “Take a close look at the packaging and check for unusual spelling errors, variations in graphics or logos, and incomplete written descriptions. For an added layer of protection, check the back of each box and do a quick Internet search to see if the official distributor named matches the brand.
“The No. 1 way that consumers can help thwart counterfeiting is to make conscious decisions to purchase on-brand items,” Aumann continued. “If a knockoff is found, consumers can contact the brand’s customer service department to let them know. It’s most helpful if they can provide representatives with additional information, such as product name, store name and location, product price and, if possible, a clear cellphone photo of the front and back of the packaging.”
“Our industry can — and several manufacturers have already — taken some cues from the consumer electronics industry on how to thwart counterfeits with holograms, stickers, serial numbers, and RFID chips for example,” Aldon said. “Some approaches are relatively simple to do while others would be cost prohibitive for smaller manufacturers. The industry and consumers can help through vigilance and an accompanying fortitude to enforce our intellectual property. The industry can also help by only buying and selling to/from reputable companies.
“We have also launched a new marketing campaign to reinforce our brand’s reputation in the industry, ‘Aneros is…the Original,’” Aldon said. “We are reminding our consumers that we are the ‘Pioneers of Prostate Pleasure.’ There may be others, but we will always be the first and we will always work hard to provide them innovative new products.”
According to Law, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to preventing counterfeit products from winding up in the hands of consumers. For LELO, each product comes with a unique serial number,” Law said. “Consumers can find out if their LELO is authentic by registering the product online using that serial number. If one cannot register their product with us, then it’s a fake. Our warranty extends up to 10 years. This is just one illustration of how much LELO stands behind its products.”