The Power Balance bracelet worn by high profile sports stars to improve their athletic prowess has been exposed as a sham. Here's Dr Ross Tucker's take on it.
Power balance: "We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims."
The above statement should come as no surprise, given what history has shown us about companies that make such claims about products ranging from supplements to holographic stickers.
What is different is that the above quote comes directly from Power Balance, who are responsible for making the now ubiquitous holographic bracelets that are worn by celebrities, sports stars, and members of the public in such huge numbers that if you go down to your local gym and you don't have one, you feel like the odd one out.
Somebody is making a fortune of what is basically a placebo effect, a psychological benefit of wearing a bracelet that initially claimed to harness the body's natural energy field to improve. From their website, it "optimizes the body's natural energy flow", which improves strength, endurance and flexibility. All without evidence of course. And I would be the first to point out that the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of the absence of an effect.
However, in this case, the fact that not a single study exists is very telling. Why? Because proving whether these gimmicks work is so simple that a high-school student could conduct the study. Yet nothing has emerged. And that's because there is no incentive to provide the science – the science does not matter, the marketing does, and so Power Balance has invested into celebrity endorsement and viral marketing, not research. With good reason – research destroys their credibility. I'll discuss this in much more detail in a post early next week.
For today, just the report on the findings of the Commission. Below is the statement they issued in response to an investigation from Australia's Competition and Consumer Commission, which exposed them as a sham. The huge verdict resulted in Power Balance admitting that they had no evidence, that they had misled consumers, and promising to refund customers who feel misled by the advertising claims. The statement below will appear in 20 magazines in Australia.
"CORRECTIVE ADVERTISEMENT: Power Balance Wrist Bands
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.
To obtain a refund please visit our website www.powerbalance.com.au or contact us toll-free on 1800 733 436
This offer will be available until 30th June 2011. To be eligible for a refund, together with return postage, you will need to return a genuine Power Balance product along with proof of purchase (including credit card records, store barcodes and receipts) from an authorised reseller in Australia.
This Corrective Notice has been paid for by Power Balance Australia Pty Ltd and placed pursuant to an undertaking to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission given under section 87B of the Trade Practices Act, 1974."
I hope that this is the catalyst for more of the same around the world.
Many of you will no doubt be thinking "so what. If it's a placebo effect, it doesn't matter, as long as it works". And this is a topic certainly worth discussing. But that's for another time, so join me next week when I'll look a little more closely at Power Balance bracelets, some of the claims they made, and how the lack of science was part of the strategy. It's a great case study in the clash of incentives between marketing and credibility, and should stimulate some good discussion.
And finally, I have no objection to members of the public, celebrities and even individual sportspeople wearing the bracelet. However, if you are a sports scientist, a personal trainer or biokineticist/strength and conditioning coach who works with athletes and sports teams, and you wear this bracelet, then you are unwittingly (or perhaps knowingly) endorsing the sham "science". After all, all you have is your scientific "credibility" – it is your value to your athletes and clients. So rather than simply following the herd, think that perhaps your endorsement strips away your own credibility.
Dr Ross Tucker, is Health24’s FitnessDoc and has a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of Cape Town and a Post-Graduate degree in Sports Management from the UCT's Faculty of Commerce. He is currently employed at the University of Cape Town and Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and works as a consultant to various sporting teams, including South African Sevens, Canoeing, Rowing and Triathlon SA. He also blogs on www.sportsscientists.com)