Photo of Vibram Sprint FiveFingers via stevendamron/Flickr
A Florida woman has filed a lawsuit against Vibram USA alleging misleading advertising in promotional materials for the company's FiveFingers line of shoes. The plaintiff, Valerie Bezdek, accuses Vibram of inflating claims about the health benefits of barefoot running to market FiveFingers and charge a price premium over other brands.
The suit appears to piggyback off a similar complaint filed last year against Reebok for their EasyTone shoes, which Reebok said would give wearers nicer thighs and butts. (They don't!) That suit netted consumers a $25 million settlement and prompted this statement from the Federal Trade Commission:
“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.”
My first reaction to the Vibram suit was irritation. (We can't possibly need a court to intervene in the barefoot running debate, can we?) My second reaction is that the suit could be good news, and Vibram might actually lose.
I hadn't paid much attention to Vibram's marketing campaign before Thursday, but the suit recaps several of the company's most sensational claims, and there is much to find objectionable. For example: Vibram says that FiveFingers "delivers a number of positive health benefits—by leveraging all of the body’s natural biomechanics, so you can move as nature intended." And: "...there is ample evidence that training without shoes allows you to run faster and farther with fewer injuries."
These are very much contested claims, and they're similar to claims that shoe companies have made for decades trying to sell support and cushioning. (Why haven't we seen any lawsuits challenging the health benefits of the medial post or the elevated heel?)
I suspect that Vibram could be correct about the health benefits of barefoot running, and there is a substantial and growing body of research that gives theoretical support to that idea. Unfortunately, the non-theoretical evidence that running barefoot, or running with "good form," confers unique benefits over regular shoes is mixed and incomplete. No controlled studies have tackled that question and found in favor of barefoot running.
The complaint is itself riddled with distortions—it names the American Podiatric Medical Association, whose members sell motion-controlling orthotics, as a source—but it is persuasive on the following point: Vibram exaggerates the health (or injury-reducing) benefits of barefoot running and has used that exaggeration to sell shoes. I thought it was ridiculous when Reebok did it with toning shoes, and I can't see a substantive difference between the two cases. And some of the best research in support of barefoot running, by Harvard's Daniel Lieberman, has been sponsored by Vibram. That won't come across well if the suit comes to trial. (I should mention here that Vibram is a regular advertiser in Outside, and that I have received several free pairs of Vibrams while reviewing shoes for for the magazine.)
I don't think a lawsuit is the right place to inject nuance into this debate, although I do like the idea that some claims about barefoot running could be tempered. But my great hope is that runners can get away from the emphasis on shoes and form, and refocus the conversation about running to something more important—how wonderful running is, for example.