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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