All power to the bracelet or the mind?

"But now the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has thrown a spanner in the works by announcing that Power Balance’s claims are unfounded. The words “no better than a rubber band” have appeared in media reports around the globe in recent weeks."

A superb article written by the consumer journalist, Wendy Knowler, and published in The Star.

All power to the bracelet or the mind?

The Star Monday 10 January, 2011.

by Wendy Knowler

In an age of quick fixes and celebrity worship, a hologram-containing bracelet, worn by sporting icons and other celebs, which claims to give the wearer strength, balance and flexibility, was destined to be an international hit.

An international hit the Power Balance bracelet certainly has been – it’s become a must-have wrist adornment for the sporty and wannabes, and predictably copy-cat manufacturers have muscled into the market, too.

But now the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has thrown a spanner in the works by announcing that Power Balance’s claims are unfounded. The words “no better than a rubber band” have appeared in media reports around the globe in recent weeks.

Power Balance in Australia conceded they couldn’t provide any “credible scientific evidence” to support their claims, and has since amended its website and packaging, and offered to refund anyone who felt they’d been duped.

But while the Power Balance bracelet on sale in South Africa and other parts of the world is identical to those sold in Australia, the ACCC’s pronouncements have no bearing on Power Balance operations in other parts of the world.

In other words, it’s business as usual in SA. Asked if South African consumers who’d bought Power Balance bracelets would be given a refund if they applied for one in the wake of the revelations, David Levy of SPT, the exclusive distributor of Power Balance in South Africa, told Consumer Watch the refund policy which had been in place since the product first went on sale in SA in September 2009, would remain unchanged – consumers will be refunded if they return their bracelets within 30 days of purchase, on presentation of proof of purchase.

The same applies in Britain.

He declined to divulge how many Power Balance bracelets had been sold in SA.

Asked how the media storm around the ACCC’s decision had affected the South African operation, Levy said: “We have had enquiries from concerned retailers, customers and some comments from sceptics and we are addressing these as they arise.

“We have also been in contact with our authorised retailers regarding the situation. We will meet with our PR firm in the next few days to address our response in the social media channels.”

Quoting from a statement made by Power Balance president Keith Kato, Levy said media reports on the issue were “fundamentally incorrect”.

Kato insists that the Power Balance products work.

“Power Balance did not make any claims that our product does not perform,” he said in that statement.

“We are committed to bringing our performance technologies to every athlete in the world, from professional to amateur to recreational.

“While our previous claims in marketing ads are not up to Australia’s ACCC standards, we stand behind our products. “The belief of thousands of consumers and athletes who wear our products are not wrong.”

While the company had provided the ACCC with “numerous actual consumer testimonies supporting the wristbands’ performance”, Kato said, the commission insisted that the marketing claims be removed until Power Balance “could provide them with their narrow criteria of randomised, double-blind scientific studies that supports the use of those marketing phrases”.

Those are the criteria which advertising watchdogs around the world insist on, too, in order to protect consumers from bogus claims. Anecdotal evidence doesn't cut it.

Corne Koch, the Advertising Standards Authority of SA's communications manager, said the body had received a few complaints about Power Balance bracelets, none of which had reached the hearing stage.

But in response to a complaint about a similar product last year – the T4 Pro Balance bracelet – a hearing was held in September, at which the Directorate accepted an undertaking by the advertiser to change the wording on its advertising to address the concerns raised about unsubstantiated claims.

But here’s the thing – the ASA is a reactive rather than a proactive body, which means it only considers marketer's claims if a consumer or competitor lodges a complaint. It does not initiate such investigations.

Levy said the rapid growth of Power Balance had led others to counterfeit and imitate the product.

“Many have, and continue to, make irresponsible and unfounded claims about their supposed efficacy and results,” he said.

Critics or skeptics attribute believers' faith in the efficacy of the product to the placebo effect – supreme belief in a product’s claims is said to result in perceived benefits.

Arguably, when you've spent R500 on such an item, you're rather invested in believing that it will indeed make you stronger, more balanced and more flexible.

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