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12 January 2011

Power Balance bracelet scam unraveled

Power Balance bracelets - some say "it works, who cares why?" while others protest the "fraud of Power Balance bracelets". Dr Ross Tucker says "It's a scam and has cost you money".

Power Balance bracelets - some say "it works, who cares why?" while others are vehemently touting the "fraud of Power Balance bracelets". Dr Ross Tucker says "It's a scam and has cost you money".

Last week a big debate started up on the Power Balance bracelets - bracelets with holographic technology that's supposed to "work with your body's natural energy field", "resonates and responds to the natural energy field" to improve balance, strength, endurance and flexibility. 

Too good to be true?  Apparently, yes, because in the last week, the fraudulent advertising claims made by the company have been poked and exposed by numerous sources.

Where it all began

The debate began in Australia, where an advertising commission ruled that Power Balance must refund any unhappy consumers after finding no evidence. 

Power Balance themselves issued a statement saying there was "no credible scientific evidence" that the bands worked at all. 

That was followed by a class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles, a 300,000 Euro fine in Italy for false advertising, and an NIH conclusion that the scientific evidence was lacking. 

Here in South Africa, the local newspapers have picked up the story, I did an interview or two on the radio, so at the very least, the debate has now begun. 

Prior to this, the bracelet was a sensation - the best selling item at a big local sports store in South Africa, and I'm told, a million-dollar industry. 

CNBC named it "Sports Product of 2010" and it was a best-seller on Amazon.com. 

Considering that you can place a bulk order for 500 bands for $475, and then sell the band for the equivalent of about $70, you can tell that someone is basically printing money off the advertising claims made by the company. Those advertising claims and people's gullibility have set more than a few people up for life.

The placebo effect - and why it does matter

Among its target market, opinion is divided. 

Many are saying "about time they were exposed", while others are standing by their purchases. The most common defence, of course, and one that is worth discussing, is that the bracelet seems to work, so who cares why it works? Perception is reality, after all...

Of course, when you have paid R500, the equivalent of $70 for a piece of plastic, then you're more invested in the band than you probably want to realise. 

The pricing is in fact an important part of the overall marketing strategy - you don't promise such amazing benefits and then charge only $10 for them. The more people pay, the more "effective" the band will be, and the more vociferously they will defend it, regardless of whether your advertising promise is true or not.

Scientifically, opinion is less divided - for example, our friend Inigo Mujika wrote the following on his website: "I have no other choice but to admit that my academic education is insufficient to be able to interpret what appears to be nothing but a bunch of nonsense." 

Most scientific opinions I have seen dismiss the band as a placebo effect. 

The placebo effect is a phenomenon where even an "ineffective" intervention (like a sugar tablet in a medicine trial, for example) will have an effect because of the subject's belief that it will work.  For more on the placebo effect, there is a fascinating and comprehensive chapter in Ben Goldacre's book, Bad Science.  Well worth reading.

The lack of research, as I've said before, is conspicuous by its absence, saying more about the company than any study could. 

I cannot stress enough how relatively simple a study on Power Balance bracelets would be. If the company was at all interested, they would have done this study years ago, and it would have been repeated by many different research groups (all independent), and published widely in peer-reviewed scientific journals. 

But there is nothing of the sort - some impromptu studies have been done to show that the effect is purely placebo, but these are not in scientific journals either - all I have are news links here and here.

Now, these studies are not published either, and that's largely because no one really has the incentive to conduct and then publish research disproving a gimmick.  The onus would be on Power Balance to prove that their product works, yet years of marketing have not seen fit to do so.

Why?  Because science doesn't matter, marketing does, so they're more invested in a viral campaign that gets big names into the bracelet than actually proving the effect. 

However, when it comes to promotion and advertising, then the "science" suddenly becomes important.  It is not for nothing that decades and generations have passed with this concept of "natural energy fields", yet not a shred of scientific proof under controlled conditions exists. 

It's a scam, and it has cost you money.

In case Power Balance is reading this, the study you need to do to show that the bracelet works is simple - all you need is one real and one fake bracelet, a group of 50 volunteers, and a "tester", who doesn't even need to be independent. In other words, Power Balance can send along one of their own people to conduct their "tests", and as long as that person doesn't know whether the volunteer is holding the real bracelet of the fake one, the result is blinded. 

The hypothesis would be an improvement in flexibility (easy to measure), strength (equally objective) and balance (not quite as simple, but possible, provided the tester is the same each time). 

Then, each volunteer has to be tested under both conditions - the real and the fake bracelet, and the order of testing has to be randomised so that half do the fake bracelet first, half the real one - this would take care of a 'learning effect' and the neural adaptation that takes place with all those tests.

This kind of double-blind study would very quickly establish whether the hologram does anything, or whether simply wearing the band is the difference. 

It's so easy to do that students have done it on the fly - but Power Balance still have not.

The tests that are done, incidentally, are themselves extremely dodgy, because they're so easy to "cheat", and the video below looks at how this field succeeds at doing this.  It's a little overplayed - too much sarcasm, and long-winded (jump to just before 5:00 to see the bit about how the tests actually work, where the 'con' is exposed), but it's accurate and very interesting.

My first encounter with Power Balance bracelets was in fact observing these very tests - it was at the Two Oceans Marathon expo last year, where the company had a stand and was conducting these demonstrations on passers-by.  People were amazed when suddenly, holding a bracelet with a hologram would improve their balance or strength or stability, and the company was very clearly using science as the bait to lure the consumer in. 

The video above addresses, at least in part, that method of selling the bracelet.

 
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