Sierra was scrolling through her For You page in January when she came across a seven-second clip of a woman unpacking the spoils of a recent Target order: two large boxes of store-brand toilet paper(Opens in a new tab). “It is the best dupe for Charmin toilet paper,” the narrator declares in a voiceover.
Sierra, who works in marketing but uses TikTok for fun, had noticed more and more videos about dupes on the app lately, but found the seven-second clip “outrageous”: Why are we romanticizing generic versions of everyday household items that have been around forever? So she decided to stitch it.
“‘Be so fucking for real right now’ was the first thought that came to my mind, and I just said it,” Sierra told Mashable, explaining her brief and blunt reaction video(Opens in a new tab). (We’ve omitted her last name to protect her privacy.) She thought some friends who followed her would find it funny. Apparently a few other people did, too: It’s since garnered well over half a million views and 76,000 likes.
While Sierra didn’t go into her video with the intention of going viral, “it makes sense to me that it resonated with people,” she said. “I know I’m not the only person who’s thinking like, ‘OK, this word [dupe] is kind of overused now.'”
Why are dupes so popular right now?
Finding dupes (short for “duplicates”), or products that replicate the experience of more expensive or inaccessible items, is panning out to be the biggest shopping trend of 2023 so far — largely thanks to TikTok, where videos about worthy copycats rack up millions of views. (The tag #dupe has been viewed more than 2.8 billion times on the app.) Search interest for the term “dupe” hit an all-time peak this month, according to Google Trends data(Opens in a new tab), spawning related queries for popular buys like “Dyson Airwrap dupe,” “Airpods Max dupe,” and “Birkenstock Boston clog dupe.”
TikTok’s dupe recommendation renaissance has also given rise to a new meme on social media, where users ironically liken two different entities in the vein of “it’s giving(Opens in a new tab)” or “big [blank] energy.” Antidepressants? Serotonin dupe(Opens in a new tab). Matty Healy in a silk shirt? Harry Styles dupe. Painted-over window in your bathroom that leads to a hidden room(Opens in a new tab)? Coraline dupe! The dupe mindset is real(Opens in a new tab) and pervasive.
In a way, our collective interest in dupes is simply a sign of the times. Apps like TikTok and Instagram are contributing to a lightning-fast trend cycle, and there’s a thrill in the hunt of finding a cheap, readily available version of something that lets us try on the latest “core(Opens in a new tab).” Retailers are more than happy to inflame these desires and aspirations with cheaply made, lower-quality products(Opens in a new tab).
And certainly there have been “knockoffs” of designer bags, watches, and other assorted items for decades (as anyone who’s walked Canal Street or attended a ’90s-era “purse party” can attest), but the internet has ushered in a new era of this longstanding practice.
“For different types of people, dupes are a way of having a look and wanting to participate in a certain aesthetic, but doing it more accessibly,” said Amanada Brennan, a meme librarian and senior director of trends at the digital marketing agency XX Artists.
Like it or not, we’ve hit peak dupe culture.
Our compulsion to deem everything a dupe is also a natural response to an unpredictable economy beset by inflation and supply chain challenges. Being able to save money, or not wait a few weeks for a backorder to be filled, can easily outweigh the quality or status pull of name brands for many consumers. Luxury purchases like the Dyson Airwrap have basically created their own secondary dupe markets, with a whole slew of brands making their own version of the original product. And saying you discovered a dupe is more fun than admitting to buying Up & Up Premium Ultra Soft Toilet Paper because it was a few dollars cheaper than Charmin. Like it or not, we’ve hit peak dupe culture.
Dupes as content
Historically, “duping” has meant two different things, depending on which circles you run in. To gamers, it’s the practice of using bugs or exploits to clone in-game currency or rare items. To the general public, it’s always been a synonym for tricking, deceiving, or swindling.
Brennan points to a 2007 question(Opens in a new tab) on a craft forum as the earliest mention of “dupe” as a stand-in for something pricey, sold out, or discontinued: “I’ve gone through 3 different fragrance finder sites & googled every imaginable key word, but can’t seem to find any dupes for Tyler Candle Company,” wrote user TxSioux. The term took off in a bigger way within the beauty industry a few years later, which Brennan largely credits to a blogger named Christine Mielke(Opens in a new tab) (aka Temptalia) and her long-running archive of makeup swatch comparisons called The Dupe List(Opens in a new tab).
Content about beauty and clothing dupes trickled onto Instagram in the 2010s before the genre expanded on TikTok, Brennan said. The reason for its massive popularity there is twofold.
“I think there’s algorithmic play here. Like once you find one [dupe video], you’re probably going to keep going down the rabbit hole,” Brennan explained. There’s alvso a degree of odd satisfaction involved, she said, whether you’re the one making a dupe video or watching it. Buy this instead of that! will always be a compelling content peg (see also: de-influencing and anti-hauls), and the eventual reveal of an unexpected alternative is a rush for both parties involved.
Lars Perner, an assistant professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California, noted that the influx of dupe videos on TikTok could also be an example of social proof. It’s the phenomenon that people are more likely to go to restaurants that have longer lines, or watch a movie that people online are recommending, because they assume other people know what’s good.
“I imagine that you see other people creating TikTok content of a particular type and you sort of get swept up in that,” Perner said.
The Los Angeles-based alternative rock band Never Ending Fall(Opens in a new tab) became one of the biggest players in the TikTok dupe game entirely by accident. Members Jack Miller, Tommy St. Clair, Conrad Boyd, Pearce Eisenhardt, and Johnny Hohman were wandering through the aisles of their local Costco one day when they spotted giant, alarmingly cheap bottles of the warehouse store’s Kirkland Signature brand alcohol. A blind taste test with name-brand liquor was floated as a joke before they decided to film it for fun, setting the footage behind a jazzy homemade jingle: “Can it Kirklaaand?”
The views kept coming, so the drinks kept flowing. The band has since filmed nearly 30 videos in their hit “Can It Kirkland” series, now in its second season, racking up millions of likes and amassing devoted fanbases both online and IRL in the process. (Their latest single, “Bad Taste,” is not a reference to their critical palettes, for the record.)
“It was so funny to see the whole thing translate [to real-life] when we were on the road on tour, because we literally had people dressed as [series host] Johnny coming to our show,” said vocalist Miller (aka Contestant No. 2). People may have come for the dupe recommendations, but they’ve stayed for the cast of characters involved. “It’s so cool to see how it all flows over into our careers as musicians as well.”
That’s part of the dupe trend’s staying power, according Perner. “I imagine much of the appeal of some of these things would be the personalities of people in the TikToks,” he said. Perner compares dupe TikToks to QVC, where the hosts are able to hype people up about products that can honestly be fairly boring.
“I think that TikTok is probably a great illustration of the idea that just about anything can be made interesting in some way,” Perner said.
For the record, the guys of Never Ending Fall’s favorite Kirkland dupe is Kirkland Signature Tequila Silver (the dupe for Casamigos Blanco), which interestingly enough was the liquor they tried in their very first “Can It Kirkland” video.
What makes a dupe a good dupe?
Dupes have creeped into almost every product category, but not everything truly needs to be duped. Perner says it’s one thing if we were looking at really expensive items where finding a cheaper alternative makes a big difference, but products like toilet paper or water bottles are not in the same league.
“I’m not sure most of us really could tell the difference that much, realistically speaking, between different brands,” Perner said.
But, as we’re in the age of dupes, it’s only fair to talk about what to look for in a dupe product. The goal of a dupe is to lower the cost without sacrificing quality while retaining most of the same features or designs.
An easy way to find dupes is by searching via Google Lens or Amazon Camera Search(Opens in a new tab). Using a photo of the product you want through these tools will bring up results for items with similar product images. So, then you can just scroll through and find the closest match in your price range.
You can also, of course, turn to TikTok as a dupes search engine. If you can wade through the satirical DOOPS, you’ll find actual suggestions for some of the app’s most sought-after products.
The issue with there being so many dupes, is that there are also plenty of dupe-wannabes that are actually just crappy products designed to make a quick buck. Just an evergreen reminder: If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Perner noted that Amazon is full of third-party merchants, so the risk of receiving a counterfeit product is higher there. Especially if you’re looking for a dupe of something that doesn’t have as distinctive of an appearance. So, there does have to be some brand recognition when purchasing dupes, or you run into the possibility of receiving AliExpress-quality products.
Brands will likely never label their products as “dupes” because of the legal implications involved in that. While Target’s Up & Up store-brand toilet paper is explicitly labeled as a comparison to Charmin on its packaging, a now-deleted comment from the Target account on TikTok(Opens in a new tab) says the company’s legal team forbids them from actually using the term “dupe.” Target declined to provide a comment to Mashable about not being able to use the term.
Credit: Screenshot: TikTok
Dupes have very much been a user-led phenomenon. Even when Shein or Fashion Nova dupe a piece of clothing, they won’t label it as such. It’s up to the consumer to make the connection that that’s what the brands are doing.
Brands might not call their products dupes, but we sure will. We’ve rounded up some of the best dupes we’ve tried for products such as AirPods Max, the SKIMS dress, and the Dyson Airwrap.