Jan 04 2011

Power Balance Admits Fraud

In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility.

We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974.

If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologise and offer a full refund.

This is an impressive skeptical victory. One of the self-proclaimed missions of the skeptical movement (such as it is) is consumer protection. Skeptics value truth and reason, and often we will correct a misconception just for the sake of doing so. But often misinformation has a nefarious purpose – to support an ideology, or just to sell something. Deliberately using misinformation in order to create a demand for a product or service is known as fraud.

The manufacturers of PowerBalance were forced to make the above statement in the Australian media. How did this come about? The Australian Skeptics were instrumental – here is a timeline of the events, summarized for me by Richard Saunders:

I appeared on TV on the show Today/Tonight in Dec 2009 and tested the Australian distributor. He failed 5/5 tests.(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ynbx5JfEwcA)
A few months later I and Dr Rachie and Dr Krissy made the video: Applied Kinesiology – How it’s Done (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Piu75P8sxTo)
After that I met with the people from CHOICE magazine and explained the whole system to them. They independently of me then ran their own tests and concluded it was a con. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ds8OSYuig)
All this led to the ACCC directing Power Balance in December 2010 to stop making claims about the product that could not be supported. Power Balance Australia posted this retraction on their web site (http://www.powerbalance.com/australia/CA) – This page is of great importance. It shows Power Balance admitting their product does not work.
Power Balance USA have now removed links to the Australian site! See bottom of page. (http://www.powerbalance.com/)

Nicely done.

The video by Richard is especially useful. It shows how at least some people who were selling the PowerBalance bands used what, in my opinion, has to be conscious deception in order to sell their product. When you want someone to fall over, you push straight down on their arm. When you want them to keep their balance, you push slightly toward their center of balance. This is just an old trick, easily demonstrated.

The SkepticBros also got involved – two young skeptics who happened to have a connection to the Chinese manufacturers that were the probable source of these rubber wrist bands with cheap holograms installed. They discovered that you could order these bands for less than a buck a unit. They were selling for between 30-60 dollars each. So they had a few thousand made up and started selling them as Placebo Bands for just $2. I’ve got a few – they’re good conversation starters.

PowerBalance USA is still up an running. On their website they write:

Power Balance is Performance Technology designed to work with your body’s natural energy field. Founded by athletes, Power Balance is a favorite among elite athletes for whom balance, strength and flexibility are important.

Very slick – notice how they don’t actually claim anything. The implication is clear, but nothing is actually claimed. Still, in my opinion, this is fraud none-the-less. It is creating a misleading belief in order to generate a market for a dubious product. Now it’s time for the FTC to get involved. If Australians are being protected by the TGA, Americans should be protected by the FTC. Fraud is fraud.

20 responses so far

20 Responses to “Power Balance Admits Fraud”

  1. Sc00teron 04 Jan 2011 at 9:24 am

    Don’t forget the work of countless other skeptics, including my wife.

    http://www.granitestateskeptics.org/2011/01/01/my-thoughts-on-a-skeptical-year/

    My wife outlines her battle with a similar company (Energy Armor) at our local mall. Taking this battle into the real world and holding companies to task and accountable for their claims.

  2. Michael Meadonon 04 Jan 2011 at 9:26 am

    A bunch of us South African skeptics have reported PowerBalance South Africa to our advertising regulator. Should be interesting to see what happens.

    Later in the year the Consumer Protection Act comes fully into effect. It’s a fantastic piece of legislation that will make life very difficult for quacks, fraudsters and their kin.

  3. Enzoon 04 Jan 2011 at 11:54 am

    Now I get to make my fortune making an add-on hologram that empowers the now useless PowerBand. And you clearly have to occasionally replenish the frequency of the hologram so it doesn’t run out.

    But seriously, this is an amazing victory and speaks to the strength of the ACCC. I was arguing with a friend that was skeptical at the start, but became adamant that these bracelets worked after a “demonstration”. Now I believe I can convince him that it was always nonsense.

    Imagine if we always had the company’s own admission that their product was a sham?

  4. chaos4zapon 04 Jan 2011 at 1:02 pm

    While shopping on Christmas Eve., there was a kiosk in the mall selling these power bands. I have seen them before and usually just shake my head in disappointment that the mall would allow these people to so blatantly rip people off, this time was a little different. I didn’t stay as far away from the kiosk as I had hoped (to avoid the possible woo infection, of course) and one of the sales guy’s insisted I partake in the demonstration. Sure enough, with arms at my side he pushed down. I made a conscious effort to use my strength to limit his angle of pushing and he wasn’t even able to make be wobble, pre-bracelet. Then comes the bracelet. He handed it to me and I started to put it on and he said all I had to do is hold it, I didn’t have to put it on. Apparently they are more concerned with a bunch of people putting on the same bracelet being unsanitary, than they are with false advertisement. I asked if i needed to have the hologram touching my skin while holding it, as suspected, he told me it doesn’t matter. As he lined up to do the second push downward on my hands, I did the same thing, made myself very aware of the angle and just resisted him as normal. Wouldn’t you know it, no appreciable difference at all. The guy still looked at me, waiting for my shock and awe at how much improvement there was. I looked straight at him and said “You know there is no plausible mechanism by which this simple, stupid hologram could have any physiological impact on my body at all.” he said sure there is! FREQUENCY’S! I kid you not, all he said was the word frequency’s. I told him frequency’s sounded pretty scientific and asked if he could tell me more about these frequency’s and how the impact my body. At that, he just got this crap-eating grin on his face and then completely ignored me and just moved on to some other passerby, as if me and him were never even having a conversation. Unfortunately, no spectators or other suckers were close enough to hear our dialog or see that demonstration, but I suspect they do that intentionally as well. Keep the marks as isolated as possible, just in case, something goes awry. This guy was lying and he knew it. It certainly appeared as if he had been challenged so little that he didn’t even have a decent story for how the thing works. They also advertised that it worked by quantum-ion technology, or something like that. I wish I have had more time to inquire about this quantum-ion technology…but I’m sure that would have went nowhere as well.

  5. BillyJoe7on 04 Jan 2011 at 5:24 pm

    chaos4zap,

    I’m not sure you are taking the right tack.

    The salesman may not have even thought about it all that much and its just another item to sell to customers because that’s his job. Or he may have seen a demostration that convinced him it works. He may even have used one himself and convinced himself that it works.

    We are all susceptable to this sort of thing. In fact, even for a person with a very sceptical attitude, it is necessary to be continually on the lookout to avoid being fooled. It’s too easy just to accept that people are telling you the truth.

    With people who are not obviously the scammers, sowing seeds of doubt seems to be the way to go. Make them think a little bit.

    regards,
    BillyJoe

  6. chionactison 04 Jan 2011 at 7:15 pm

    This is fantastic news. It always feels good to see reason triumph over fraud and superstition. I don’t see how individuals in the FTC could, in all good conscience, allow Power Balance in the U.S. to continue marketing their product without at least requiring them to clearly state on their site that there is no credible scientific evidence to support their absurd claims.

  7. BillyJoe7on 04 Jan 2011 at 7:23 pm

    chionactis,

    I think the FTC, like the FDA in Australia, is not pro-active and requires that someone actually present a written complaint. 😉

  8. VRAlbanyon 04 Jan 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Oh great news!
    The only time I ever really heard about these was because a friend, who is a really smart guy, bought one of them.
    My boyfriend and I noticed the cool looking bracelet he was wearing while we were out at a bar with him, and asked him about it. He told us about the concept behind it and the convincing guys at the mall who sold it to him.
    Suspecting something, we got him to do an informal field experiment right there and asked him to repeat the sales demonstration on us. Boyfriend went first, going through the balance trick first without, then with the bracelet. Another test they apparently did was to ask you to bend down and stretch to reach your toes. Of course after you put the bracelet on, you can stretch much further.
    Then, when it was my turn, I did the stretch test FIRST with the bracelet ON, then again with it off. Wouldn’t you know that I was able to reach further in the second round of stretching anyway?
    At that point, I think our friend felt a little embarrassed, and we didn’t even go on to do the balance test on me.
    I did feel kind of bad, we didn’t intend to hurt his pride. Thankfully none of our other friends were really paying attention, and I’m only retelling the story here because I’m pretty sure he doesn’t read this blog. Again, this is a really smart guy. It just goes to show that (like BillyJoe7 said) anyone can be susceptible to deceptive marketing.
    I think it’s fantastic that the manufacturers of this trinket were brought to task. I hope our friend at least sees a report on this and is able to get his $30 back.

  9. chaos4zapon 05 Jan 2011 at 9:30 am

    BillyJoe7,

    In the case of people, say, selling non-sense herbal supplements or the like, I would tend to agree with you. In this case, I have to disagree. The reason I disagree is because of the demonstration itself. Because you have to consciously change the angle of your force to get the desired response, it is far too hard for me to believe that one could be doing that without being aware. Of course, It is possible, much like psychics and cold reading, that they begin by being conscious of the trick, but through positive reinforcement from those around them, come to eventually believe they do have ability’s or that their product works, but I do not think this is the case here at all. I do realize that this young guy probably just doesn’t care, and sees it as a way to pay the bills. I know it’s unrealistic, but I would like to think that people would have more integrity than simply saying “who cares if we are selling empty promises, as long as I’m getting paid”. As another example, look at something like psychic surgery. In order to pull that off, you have to knowingly palm and conceal something like chicken liver sin your hand, then make them appear as if you are pulling them out of the patient. The person, after some time, may come to believe they have abilities, but there is no getting around the fact that they must know that they are concealing something and deceiving people. Granted the powerband demonstration is much more subtle than palming chicken livers, but still….doing this demonstration many times a day and not being aware that he has to change angles to get the most dramatic effect? To say that he honestly believes these things really work is the more unlikely option. Steering clear of calling people out on dubious claims simply because they are just trying to earn a paycheck, or that they truly believe in the claim themselves, only fosters an environment that say’s it’s ok. If he is a conscious fraud, then I called him out on it. If he really believes in the product, then sow the seed of doubt is exactly what I did by challenging him to explain how it could possibly work and pointing out that this same demonstration has been used to peddle non-sense for decades or longer.

  10. chaos4zapon 05 Jan 2011 at 9:36 am

    I also wanted to note that “sucker” was probably not the best descriptor for those that buy them. I am well aware that anyone is capable of being fooled, myself included. It would just be great if the threshold for the majority of the population being easily fooled, was not so low. People that want to sell false hopes and promises do not seem to try very hard at all and still make millions. That is a fact that I find very despairing.

  11. EvanHarperon 05 Jan 2011 at 10:43 am

    Although I am very glad for this victory let me suggest that it is not a good idea to refer to this as “Fraud.” According to Wikipedia and this FindLaw article the violation that Power Balance has admitted to is distinct from fraud; they have not admitted to intentionally misleading customers, or even to misleading customers through reckless indifference to the truth, but only to misleading customers, period. Which may not be fraud.

    I don’t expect you to end up as the next Simon Singh, but still. Best change it to “False Claims.”

  12. BillyJoe7on 05 Jan 2011 at 6:58 pm

    EvanHarper,

    You said that it is “not a good idea” to refer to it as fraud.
    But it is fraud, right?

    😉

  13. BillyJoe7on 05 Jan 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Chaos,

    Although it is clear that whoever designed PowerBalance was committing outright fraud – knowingly and intentionally misleading the public – I’m not convinced that those doing the test are not simply deluded into thinking they are doing a valid test.

    The idiomotor effect is very subtle. The push is practically all in the downward direction with only a very slight push to the outside or the inside. The mind can be easily and consistently tricked by the idiomotor effect. Dowsers don’t deliberatly cause their rods to move when they know where the gold is hidden and they are quite genuinely surprised when they cannot pass scientifically designed tests of their ability.

    Also the chiropractor in the video didn’t impress me as being a fraud either. I’m sure he genuinely believes he is doing a fair test as much as he honestly believes in chiropractic.

  14. Spurllon 05 Jan 2011 at 10:50 pm

    So apparently Power Balance is unhappy with the amount of press that they’ve been getting over this. If you visit http://www.powerbalance.com/statement, you’ll see that they’re already back-pedalling from their admission.

    Power Balance products work. The existing reports out there are fundamentally incorrect. Power Balance did not make any claims that our product does not perform.

    FAIL.

    The belief of thousands of consumers and athletes who wear our products are not wrong.

    Say it with me, folks: argumentum ad populum.

    A preliminary study recently conducted on the product’s performance variables was commissioned and the findings have determined that the product does in fact provide a “statistically significant” result on the wearer’s performance. We are committed to further evaluating the product’s performance parameters so that we can continue to provide products that enhance the wearer’s lifestyle.

    This is absolutely pathetic.

  15. chaos4zapon 06 Jan 2011 at 8:56 am

    Let me guess, when they say “preliminary study”, they mean to say….we can’t share the specifics of this study with the public yet. How convenient. My prediction, if any study was done at all, small study population, no controls, no blinding. With the press they got the first time, they clearly know there is attention on them, which they remedy by claiming a preliminary study shows results and not providing said study? I think that puts them in an even worse position with the evidence based folk.

  16. chaos4zapon 06 Jan 2011 at 9:19 am

    BillyJoe,

    I fully agree that it could be all self-deluded ideomotor effect, but I’m still not buying that that was the case here or in most cases with these people. People that truely believe in what their doing, usually, do not mind being challenged. That’s why douser’s agree to be tested in the first place. Someone that ask’s you to move along at the first sign of a challenge or request for explaination? If that’s not one of the red flag’s that someone is probably knowingly trying to deceive people…I don’t know what is. There are story’s about alleged Psychics that have failed the preliminary test for randi’s challenge and I think you could make a strong case for the fact that those people believed they actually had ability. Silvia Brown, on the other hand, refuses any test and avoids any kind of questions or interviews that may be challenging (although she sometime sends someone from her camp to represent her) We can say all day that Sylvia Brown may believe she has abilities….it’s possible, but certainly not probable. Much the same here.

  17. chaos4zapon 06 Jan 2011 at 9:20 am

    BillyJoe,
    I fully agree that it could be all self-deluded ideomotor effect, but I’m still not buying that that was the case here or in most cases with these people. People that truly believe in what they’re doing, usually, do not mind being challenged. That’s why douser’s agree to be tested in the first place. Someone that asks you to move along at the first sign of a challenge or request for explanation? If that’s not one of the red flag’s that someone is probably knowingly trying to deceive people…I don’t know what is. There are stories about alleged Psychics that have failed the preliminary test for Randi’s challenge and I think you could make a strong case for the fact that those people believed they actually had ability. Silvia Brown, on the other hand, refuses any test and avoids any kind of questions or interviews that may be challenging (although she sometime sends someone from her camp to represent her) We can say all day that Sylvia Brown may believe she has abilities….it’s possible, but certainly not probable. Much the same here.

  18. Spurllon 07 Jan 2011 at 9:36 am

    Power Balance has sneakily (or completely legitimately—it is their website) changed their statement to make it sound less petulant. Luckily I got a screencap of the original for my blog…

  19. chaos4zapon 07 Jan 2011 at 11:39 am

    I noticed that too, now the emphasis is an appeal to popularity, claiming that power balance was one of the top 5 sellers during the holiday season. No one is saying that they aren’t selling these at an impressive rate. The problem is with their claims, rather implied, or overt, that these things do anything. I think they also changed their reference to this preliminary study on the bands to emphasize that results were “statistically significant”. Why not publish the report then? Give us a little something about the protocol used, sample size, etc…

  20. VRAlbanyon 08 Jan 2011 at 9:31 pm

    On a sort of related note:
    Anyone else notice how in recent Activia Yogurt commercials, Jaime Lee Curtis now says something to the effect of, “Activia is for people who want to live healthier lifestyles! Take the Activia challenge, and if you don’t feel better after 2 weeks of eating our yogurt, you get your money back!”
    “Healthier lifestyles” and “feel better after two weeks” are much less specific promises than “helps correct your irregularity!”, which Dannon can’t legally claim anymore.

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