Toning shoes: a $25 million scam


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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


It has been a very long couple of days for me, packing up and moving out of my apartment, and getting ready to catch a trans-Pacific flight — so I was very happy to see some good news to brighten my evening. As Julie Deardorff of the Chicago Tribune notes, Reebok has apparently agreed to refund $25 million to consumers who bought their toning shoes because of misleading advertising claims:

According to the FTC complaint, Reebok falsely asserted specific numerical claims, saying, for example, that walking in EasyTone shoes had been proven to lead to 11 percent greater strength and tone in hamstring muscles than regular walking shoes.

Over the last year or two, I’ve had quite a few requests from readers (or disgusted skeptics) to write a column on the “science” (yes, those are sarcastic quote marks!) behind toning shoes. The problem is that it’s very hard to write a science-of-exercise column on something so devoid of science. (Or to look at it another way, it’s very easy, but the column ends up being two sentences long — and I get paid by the word!) 🙂

Anyway, as it turns out, there has been some critical scientific analysis of toning shoes: Christian Finn does a good job of summing up the topic here, including a link to a (non-peer-reviewed) study by some very well respected University of Wisconsin researchers that compared Reebok EasyTone, Skechers Shape-Ups and MBT shoes to ordinary running shoes, and found no worthwhile differences.

The one thing that surprises me is: why Reebok, in particular? Because ads for athletic apparel are generally so ridiculous and misleading that I’ve always assumed they just operate in a truth-free zone. Will similar suits follow against Skechers and other brands? Anyway, regardless of what follows, it’s always good to see the occasional victory for common sense. With PowerBalance earlier this year and now EasyTone, it’s been a pretty good year for the good guys.

9 Replies to “Toning shoes: a $25 million scam”

  1. Hate to be the devil’s advocate, but they claimed “up t0 11%”. That includes 0% or less. Perhaps you should not put then on your feet, but somewhere else to tone your butt.

  2. I’m sure they knew it was shaky marketing from the start – they have made more than 350 million in sales to date on the product minus the 25 they are still sitting pretty – hopefully consumers smarten up a bit on issues like this – everyone wants the quick fix.

  3. Definitely! I have to admit, I don’t have THAT much sympathy for the consumers who bought the silly products — at a certain point, a bit of caveat emptor kicks in. But I’m happy to see those who try to dress up pseudoscience as science punished!

    @RH: True — I guess we should be grateful that they didn’t claim “up to 147%”, since that’s also strictly speaking true. 🙂 As an aside, I wonder if they would have been able to win the case if they’d said “up to 10%”, since that sounds more vague, so that everyone sort of assumes it’s a “hand-waving” approximation. If so, it’s that extra percent that sunk them — they got greedy.

  4. That’s too bad, a little bittersweet. Not that I knew anyone who purchased these in the real world, but I would have loved to think of me in some sort of conversation with this theoretical person who was going to explain to me how they were going to get said benefits and me having the satisfaction of shooting them in the foot so to speak to prove it.

    I still can’t believe Sketcher’s got Wayne Gretzky to be a spokesperson.

  5. @Jonas: “I still can’t believe Sketcher’s got Wayne Gretzky to be a spokesperson.”

    Money has amazing powers (even over those who already have lots of it)! 🙂

    As for that imaginary conversation, I love the idea! The problem is that in the real world, I imagine the conversation going something like this:

    Jonas: So did you see that Reebok has had to acknowledge that the “science” behind their toning shoes is a bunch of crap?
    Sucker: Well, those things are pretty hard to study properly. I’m pretty sure the shoes still work, it’s just that the ads were too specific. Actually, I bet Nike paid the FCC to rule against Reebok. It’s all a big conspiracy, man!
    Jonas: No, seriously, they’ve done studies comparing the EasyTone shoes with normal shoes, and there’s no difference.
    Sucker: With all due respect, my friend lost 18 pounds wearing the shoes. She didn’t even exercise — she just wore them at night while she was sleeping!
    Jonas: But that doesn’t make any sense!
    Sucker: It’s because the shoes make your muscles work without any effort. It’s basic science. You should try it.
    Jonas: [shoots himself in frustration]

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