Blogs & Comment

EasyTone maker Reebok rapped for making unsubstantiated marketing claims

Something stinks here, and it's not your feet.

(Photo: joSon/Getty)

A few weeks back I wrote about skin-cream marketer Beiersdorf, which was sanctioned by consumer protection authorities in the U.S. and Canada because it claimed one of its Nivea-brand skin cream products helped users slim down. (It didn’t.) Next up is shoe marketer Reebok, a subsidiary of Germany’s Adidas. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Reebok settled a dispute this week revolving around Reebok’s assertions that certain of its shoe models tones and strengthens muscles just by walking in them.

Introduced in early 2009, Reebok’s EasyTone walking shoes sold at US$80 to US$100 a pair. Its RunTone runners appeared a year later in the same price range. They targeted women almost exclusively. In commercials, the company explained these products feature something called “moving air technology,” which involves pockets of shifting air. This allegedly creates a phenomenon called “micro-instability,” something akin to what happens when one sits on a stability ball or stands on a wobble-board.

Reebok got into trouble by boasting what this technology might achieve. One of its TV spots (available here) claimed a pair of these puppies is “proven to tone your hamstrings, calves and butt up to 28% more.” For good measure, commercials for the products featured nubile models in revealing costumes whose fitness routines (just speculating here) likely involved more than simply tying their shoes. Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority previously took action against EasyTone ads. As these commercials may induce heart complications in some readers, I’ll supply no further examples. The forensic blow-by-blows in this court document, though, have great anthropological value.

Citing such a specific number—28%—made it sound as if Reebok has conducted some research. Elsewhere, Reebok has strongly implied it did in fact conduct studies. (In a letter telling retail partners to pull down the offending advertising, CEO Ulrich Becker advised: “We are actively pursuing additional studies in the marketplace.” The emphasis is mine.) But in its complaint, the FTC alleged Reebok had no substantiation. “In truth and in fact, laboratory tests do not show that, when compared to walking in a typical walking shoe, walking in EasyTone footwear will improve muscle tone and strength by 28% in the gluteus maximus, 11% in the hamstrings, and 11% in the calves.”

In late September, Reebok entered into a consent decree with the FTC, in which it agreed to pay $25 million in refunds to customers who bought the shoes. Henceforth the company is prohibited from making claims about its toning products “unless the claims are true and backed by scientific evidence.” The consent decree requires court approval before it can enter into effect. However, Reebok is at pains to point out that it has not admitted the FTC’s allegations and disagrees with them. “We stand behind our EasyTone technology,” the statement read. “We have received overwhelmingly enthusiastic feedback from thousands of EasyTone customers, and we remain committed to the further development of our EasyTone line of products.”

The consent decree sheds some light on what consumer product companies must do to support marketing claims. The court’s written findings define an “adequate and well-controlled human clinical study” as one lasting a minimum of six weeks using appropriate tools. (A dynanometer, a device that measures the degree of force used in the contraction of a group of muscles, is suggested to measure strength.) Those conducting the experiment must have adequate training and experience (no specifics are provided, though) and the trial must be randomized, controlled and blinded “to the maximum extent practicable.” The study’s results must be “considered in light of the entire body of relevant and reliable scientific evidence” before representations can be made.

What did Reebok do? This reporter cannot say. I asked Reebok to explain what research it conducted before making the offending claims about its toning products. To shed further light, I also inquired about the research behind a running shoe Reebok released in March 2010 called ZigTech. Reebok claimed this product “reduces wear and tear in key leg muscles by up to 20% allowing you to train harder for longer. Simply put, it’s an energy drink for your feet.” Those questions were ignored: I received only a boilerplate statement that did not speak to these issues.

Reebok continues to advertise EasyTone products. In one video still available on its web site as of this writing, bubbly actress Eva Mendes claims promoting EasyTone shoes “is a dream for me.” Apparently Ms. Mendes likes walking her dog in them. “I wear them every day. The great thing is you can wear them running around doing errands and you’re getting a little workout at the same time.” One might add that “running around” wearing 15th century German sabatons or French 19th century chestnut crushing clogs (although they’re not for sale you can see them here) would also constitute a “little workout,” and I’ll reckon the macro-instability these models provide would be considerable.

Reebok is not the only company making impressive claims about toning products. Skechers sells one called Tone-Ups Trainers, aimed at men. In one ad the company says its shoe includes something called a “kinetic core midsole” that “intensifies muscle activity” in the back, abdomen and legs. Ordinary-looking fellows strut about while technical-looking engineering schematics prance about in the background. But Skechers employs far more qualifying statements than the Reebok ads I’ve seen, for example suggesting that the shoes are “designed to help activate muscles and enhance maneuverability.” The FTC has not to date taken issue with Skechers ads.

Reebok’s punishment may invite schadenfreude from one competitor, Nike. According to consumer research outfit NDP Group, toning shoes took the shoe market by storm; sales rose from US$17 million in 2008 to $145 million the following year, and peaked last year at nearly US$1 billion. The category was so popular that Reebok even introduced “toning” flip flops. Nike never got in on the action, and lost market share as a result. Indeed, in its own ads Nike attacked toning shoes as a crock. Last year its vice-president of global product and merchandising, Eric Sprunk, repeated that suggestion in a speech. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could make a pair of shoes that made your butt smaller, made my gut look smaller, make your muscles look a little bit bigger, just by putting them on and wearing them around and stuff, walking in them?” Sprunk told his audience. “Nobody can do that. I was just teasing.”