On March 21, a woman filed a class action lawsuit against Vibram for deceptive advertising regarding the company’s FiveFingers line of barefoot running shoes, saying the companies claims about health benefits were not supported by well-designed scientific studies. Peter Vigneron wrote a thoughtful post for Outside about the lawsuit when it was first filed, and you should read it. “Unfortunately, the non-theoretical evidence that running barefoot, or running with ‘good form,’ confers unique benefits over regular shoes is mixed and incomplete,” he said. “No controlled studies have tackled that question and found in favor of barefoot running.”
The lawsuit is still pending, and not without precedent. On September 28, 2011, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached a settlement with Reebok in which the company agreed to pay $25 million in customer refunds for deceptive claims that their EasyTone and RunTone shoes would provide more tone and strength to leg and buttocks muscles than regular shoes. Reebok’s claims were a bit more specific than what Vibram has stated. For example, Reebok claimed that walking in EasyTone footwear had been proven to lead to 28 percent more strength and tone in the buttock muscles, 11 percent more strength and tone in the hamstring muscles, and 11 percent more strength and tone in the calf muscles than regular walking shoes. They didn’t back that up.
Upon announcing the decision against Reebok, the FTC issued a strong statement to companies. “The FTC wants national advertisers to understand that they must exercise some responsibility and ensure that their claims for fitness gear are supported by sound science,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
How much did that statement change things? In July 2012, Nicholas Bakalar wrote in The New York Times about a study published in BMJ Open in which authors looked at claims made in health and fitness advertisements in magazines and on websites. Of the dozens of fitness products whose claims they examined, not one was supported by scientific research. Geez, whatever happened to the days when companies who didn’t have scientific evidence built their advertising around inspiring general statements and big personalities? Oh, right. And right. And....