Apr 14 2011

Power Balance Smacked in Another Lawsuit

By now most people have heard of those Power Balance bracelets – small rubber wristbands with a cheap hologram or three embedded in them that some pro-athletes (with or without being paid to do so) claim improve their performance. The company makes a variety of claims on their website and promotional material – or I should say they used to:

  • “Power Balance holograms are embedded with frequencies that react positively with your body’s natural energy field to improve balance, strength and flexibility;
  • “Power Balance holograms are designed to work with your body’s natural energy field;
  • Power Balance is Performance Technology;
  • Power Balance products boost the body’s self defense mechanisms creating the immediate benefits of strength, balance and flexibility gain;
  • When the hologram comes into contact with your body it gives you that added balance, strength, flexibility;
  • Use of the Power Balance results in lots of endurance and stamina”

The company was claiming, prior to a pair of lawsuits, that a small piece of rubber and plastic being next to the body can have a physiological effect – to improve balance, strength, flexibility, endurance, and stamina. This is as close to magic as you can get – they are selling magic amulets to the gullible. (To be clear, I am not in the habit of blaming victims of this kind of fraud, but there is no way around the fact that buying the magic amulet constitutes gullibility.)

If the fact that there is zero plausibility to the claims is not enough to convince you that these bracelets are bogus, the American Council on Exercise conducted a double-blind placebo controlled trials of the bracelets and found…(suspenseful pause)…that they had absolutely no effect. Zero, zip zilch, nada. I know, you’re shocked. (To be fair this one study is far from perfect or definitive, but it argues against any significant effect, which needs to be put into the context of zero plausibility.)

Their study also confirmed something which was already known. They conducted two trials of each performance task on all the subjects. Half the time the Power Balance bracelet was worn first, half the time the placebo rubber band was worn. On every trial (regardless of which band was worn first) performance improved on the second trial. This is important because when Power Balance or similar products are demonstrated to the unsuspecting public typically they are asked to perform a task and then they are given the magic amulet and asked to repeat the task – and lo and behold they perform better.

(As another aside, for those interested in trial design – it would have been optimal to have subjects have a practice round, to get to their plateau performance and eliminate this practice effect from the results.)

Relying on the practice effect is an old snake-oil salesman trick, and is very reliable. I have done it myself, with the Placebo Bands. I even did it with my “magic car keys” on Inside Edition – we pulled a random athlete from the gym, and all the Power Balance demonstrations worked perfectly just by holding my car keys on the second try – greater flexibility and balance.

Richard Saunders also demonstrates nicely how other techniques are used to enhance the demonstration. The balance trick has long been used by advocates of applied kinesiology. Have the subject hold out one arm and stand on one leg. When you want them to fall over, push their arm straight down. When you want them to keep their balance, aim slightly inward toward their feet. Physics does the rest.  This can even be subconscious – like the ideomotor effect. Although I suspect some demonstrators know exactly what they are doing.

Given how thoroughly bogus the Power Balance claims are, it is not surprising that a lawsuit in Australia ended in a judgment against the company for engaging in marketing deception. They were forced to admit as a result:

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.

After the success of the Australian lawsuit, and the forced admission by the CEO, Power Balance was vulnerable to similar suits in other countries. Recently a class-action lawsuit filed in California was settled. They report on their website:

LAGUNA NIGUEL, (March 28, 2011) — Power Balance LLC (“Power Balance”) today announced that it has entered into an agreement to resolve a recent advertising-related class action lawsuit, Batungbacal v. Power Balance LLC et al., which was filed in a federal district court in California on January 4, 2011. Under the terms of the agreement, Power Balance will provide full refunds, plus an amount for shipping and handling, to dissatisfied customers who join the class. Power Balance will also make select changes to product claims and the ways in which it advertises and markets its products in order to better define the scope of its marketing claims. The agreement makes clear that there is no acknowledgement, admission, liability, wrongdoing, noncompliance or violation on the part of Power Balance. Importantly, Power Balance expects a series of related lawsuits to be resolved as a result of this settlement.

I looked around their website and the magic claims are gone – although the celebrity endorsements are not.  In my opinion the judgment is a slap on the wrist. They used fraudulent claims in order to generate a demand for their product. They should not be allowed to benefit from that demand. I know this was a civil case, but the results and the Australia judgment should be enough for regulatory action. The company should be, in my opinion, fined for every dime they made off their product. Now the magical claims are out there and the company doesn’t even need to repeat them. The damage is done.

Meanwhile the company appears unrepentant, writing:

“We are pleased to resolve these matters, which will enable Power Balance to get back to the business of building a brand and further developing our Performance Technology™,” said Nina Freeland-Ringel, general counsel for Power Balance. “As with many early technologies, especially one involving Eastern origins, we recognize the potential for confusion in the marketplace, and concede we got ahead of ourselves with claims about our first product. While we have yet to fully document its benefits, we are wholly committed to the continued development of Power Balance products in association with athletes around the world.”

They have no “performance technology” – notice the TM symbol after this phrase. This is the old trick of making an implied claim in the proper name of a product. Technology implies some practical knowledge. Their magic amulets were based on nothing but marketing hype and a rebranding of superstitions. There was no confusion in the marketplace except what they created to sell their magic amulets.

And “getting ahead of themselves with their claims” is begging the question that their product works at all. They are trying to make it seem like they have developed some technology they know works, but didn’t take the time to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s in documenting their technology. This is unmitigated bull.

I know the above is all 1984 lawyer speak – but it reflects the common attitude of much pseudoscience in health care products and medicine. Proponents assume that their products or techniques work, based upon a credulity-straining interpretation of some exotic superstition. They give no indication that they genuinely care if the claims are correct or not. In their world, the purpose of research is not to find out IF their claims are correct but to document THAT they are correct. When proper research fails to document their claims, well then, there must be something wrong with the research – or perhaps with science itself.

Undeterred by these setbacks, Power Balance plans to move on to new “Performance Technology TM” products – this time using “Western” science. I can see it already – just swap out the term “energy” with “quantum” and voila – you have converted “Eastern” science into “Western” science. Or perhaps they will go the magnet route – electromagnetism is “Western”, right?

Coming next – copper magnetic quantum bracelets, using the best of “Western” technology wrapped around the identical BS mall demonstrations to convince the unsuspecting mark, I mean “customer.”

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18 responses so far

18 Responses to “Power Balance Smacked in Another Lawsuit”

  1. stonehamskepticon 14 Apr 2011 at 12:27 pm

    When will someone go after the crooks peddling the Q-Ray bracelet, or snake oil like Osteobiflex?

  2. daedalus2uon 14 Apr 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Yes, their power bracelets may be worthless, but the mailing list of people who bought their power bracelets … priceless!

  3. SARAon 14 Apr 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Sadly the “true believers” won’t give up the bracelet. My cousin bought one and despite my physical demonstration of how he was duped, links to the various sites, including the admission of the company to fraudulent behavior – he still feels that it helps his performance and continues to wear it.
    And as you note, it does help his performance – because he believes it does. So, while I am all for dismantling the company – I don’t know that I’m helping anyone by trying to dissuade the already loyal customer.

  4. eiskrystalon 14 Apr 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I would get angry at this stuff. The fact that the law courts favour the criminal and the laughable excuse for a consumer protection system.

    In this case though, the item in question is so bad that I can only think of it as a tax on the lazy and the stupid.

  5. larchon 14 Apr 2011 at 2:17 pm

    PowerBalance keeps demonstrating that is all about the money, which is obviously why CNBC so cynically justified naming PowerBalance the CNBC Sports Product of the Year in December 2010.

    “No matter what happens next year and no matter how many skeptics are out there, we here at CNBC evaluate businesses and from a bottom line standpoint, PowerBalance deserves the honor of CNBC’s Sports Product Of The Year.”

    http://www.cnbc.com/id/40842683

  6. chaos4zapon 14 Apr 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Can we say Cognitive dissonance ? It is far to difficult for people to admitt to themselves that they were sucker’s for buying. Wonder if we could rent the kiosk next to theirs in the mall and conduct customer awarness about how these things are a waste?

  7. BillyJoe7on 14 Apr 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Cognitive dissonance is the result of an underlying lack of scepticism and understanding of science.

    Most of us here have been trained in science and scepticism, either formally or through reading blogs like this, and the manufacturers would not even get us past the blurb on their product. We don’t actually need a controlled trial to tell us this is bullshit. From our understanding of science, it is just totally implausible. We also know how people can be fooled by the simple demonstrations that the sellers of these products use to convince them that their product works.

    But the general public doesn’t even think about looking below the surface appeal to the truth below. Because that requires training. Even after having the truth demonstrated to them, they remain captured by the surface appeal. They are not even interested in scientific explanations, prefering to rely on how something “feels” to them to be true.

    My nephew bought one of these things and you cannot tell him anything. He just knows it works. Period.

  8. Jeremiahon 14 Apr 2011 at 6:49 pm

    I suspect that all this proves is that in Australia they have been allowed to require stiffer standards for what advertisers here can get away with as puffery. Definition of puffery: The degree that untruth in advertising falls under whichever of the variety of free speech protection clauses we can find here in the US to apply.
    In other words, look for a ‘charm with no harm’ clause.

  9. tmac57on 14 Apr 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Senate minority whip Jon Kyl has been spotted wearing a Power Balance bracelet. He claims that

    “It makes my votes in the Senate go further,and helps me to be more in sync with my constituency”*

    *This was not intended to be a factual statement.”

  10. ccbowerson 15 Apr 2011 at 9:47 am

    “Cognitive dissonance is the result of an underlying lack of scepticism and understanding of science.”

    I’m not sure that this statement makes much sense, BJ. I think the other commenter referred to coginitive dissonance in the sense that people are unwilling to admit the purchase was a mistake or the product is phony because it would also reflect on them in ways they are unwilling to admit to. Since that person feels that they are not gullible/stupid they would rather ignore the evidence that demonstrates that they were (at least in that instance). Some people would rather feel right than be right

  11. ccbowerson 15 Apr 2011 at 10:28 am

    When I see claims like the ones above my first reaction is laughter(e.g. When the hologram comes into contact with your body it gives you that added balance, strength, flexibility). Then I look around and see people wearing these things, and I see how much money is made and my reaction changes completely. I must be out of touch with how people think, but it is almost sad for me to think that more than a few people would fall for something like this. I would not even take a bracelet like this for free… how are they convincing people that it is worth their money?

  12. HHCon 15 Apr 2011 at 8:33 pm

    Performance technology bracelets are sold easily at the kiosk because they fulfill a need on the part of customer to gain more physical control of activities. I’ve seen young families cater to their kids’ desire to be more coordinated by purchasing it. The little bracelet acts like a restraint reminder to stop being clumsy and focus on mastery of basic skills. Its funny the kiosk guy always refrains from selling me as I pass by his levels of bracelets.
    Maybe its that quizzical look I give as I jog past in my athletic clothes.

  13. BillyJoe7on 16 Apr 2011 at 2:44 am

    tmac,

    “This was not intended to be a factual statement.”’

    :D

    (For those who missed it: Jon Kyle stated recently that Planned Parenthood spends well over 90% of its budget on abortions. When it was pointed out that it’s actually only 3%, his office released a statement which said…yep, you guessed it!)

  14. BillyJoe7on 16 Apr 2011 at 4:28 am

    ccbowers,

    “I’m not sure that this statement makes much sense, BJ.”

    Yeah, a little ambiguous, sorry.

    I meant that a lack scepticism and understanding and appreciation of science make it possible to believe implausible things and then to conitnue to hold onto them in the face of reasons why it is not so, reasons that you are able to hold at bay because of your lack of scepticism and understanding and appreciation of science.

    …or something like that. :)

  15. DeeTeeon 17 Apr 2011 at 8:20 am

    News just in – Lyndsey Lohan wears one.
    http://www.ok.co.uk/celebnews/view/30820/Lindsay-Lohan-mixes-business-with-pleasure-at-the-basketball/

    “I find that this product gives me incredible powers to avoid scheduled court appearances for bail evasion. I also find it matches my mandatory alcohol monitoring bracelet so nicely – the more bracelet bling the better!
    “It also interferes with jewelery store security systems, enabling one to surreptitiously snitch expensive necklaces …well maybe that last one didn’t work out so great, but that must have been because quantum vibes interefered with the holographic energy waves.”

  16. topstepon 17 Apr 2011 at 9:00 am

    I was at a street fair in Florida a few weeks back and saw a slimy dude selling these things. In the five minutes I watched he sold to two separate people, both old men.

    Sad to see these frail old geezers completely duped into parting with their cash in the hopes they could regain some of the mobility they had lost in their old age.

    I really wish I’d said something, but I was with my girlfriend’s family and didn’t want to cause a fuss. I feel we skeptics should speak up when we see abuses like this – I really regret not saying something.

  17. BillyJoe7on 17 Apr 2011 at 5:22 pm

    “I really wish I’d said something”

    You have to know what you are going to say and how you are going to say it.

    Maybe use a calm voice and simply inform the potential purchaser that the braclets don’t work and that the company has been forced to retract their claims on their wedsite.

    Any other ideas on how this could be handled?

  18. MaartenKolleron 22 Apr 2011 at 4:50 pm

    I would like to point out that there have been other studies which also came up with zero result.
    In the Netherlands the VU University Amsterdam tested the Power Balance. They were asked to do this by the television program ‘Radar’ (the Canadian ‘Marketplace’, I have no knowledge if the States has an equivalent).

    Twenty people did three tests: the Rombergtest (measures the movement of the body’s center of gravity while standing still), a handsqueeze test and a sit-and-reach-test (measure for agility).

    Every test was done five times. Once without any bracelet. Once with the Power Balance. Once with the Xtreme Powerbalancebracelet (a dutch copy of the Power Balance, it even has two holograms! :) ). And twice with a taped over bracelet of which one had the hologram removed.

    For every person the sequence of which bracelet to wear was randomised and neither the subject or testassistent knew which of the taped over bracelets had the hologram.

    The results didn’t even show a placebo effect, there was just no difference for any of the tests, on average for the twenty subjects, wether they knew or not that they were wearing the original bracelet or no bracelet.

    To see the results graph check this link.
    http://www.trosradar.nl/index.php?id=printpage&tx_ttnewstt_news=37376&cHash=37376
    (Site is from the dutch television program Radar)

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