The Shoe 'Science' Racket: Footwear Companies Rake in Monster Cash by Lying to Their Customers


Google the word biomechanics and you get a formal definition: “The study of the structure and function of biological systems by means of the methods of 'mechanics,' which is the branch of physics involving analysis of the actions of forces.”

More casually and commercially, biomechanics is the physics of sports. Giant shoe manufacturers like Nike, Adidas and Skechers spend millions of dollars applying biomechanics to create the perfect shoe they can market to you with the promise of improving your athletic performance, whether it’s jumping higher in basketball, running faster or longer, or just walking around town. Some of it is valid: Particular sports use particular muscles, and by designing a shoe to optimize the use of those muscles, athletic performance can be similarly optimized.  

But a lot of it is plain old bunk, that fuels the multibillion-dollar and growing athletic shoe business. Let’s face it, it's unlikely that any shoe is going to turn me into Michael Jordan, or a weekend jogger into the next Boston Marathon winner. Fitness takes effort, a lot of effort. A well-formed buttock does not usually materialize because of a certain shoe. (Looking at you, Shape Ups and FitFlops.) And yet, it is not at all uncommon for the shoe industry to claim various kinds of healthy magic. Companies like Skechers, Reebok, FitFlop and Vibrams all promise that if you buy their shoes, you will get fitter, hotter, happier and healthier, riding these fraudulent claims all the way to enormous profits that far outpace settlements paid in lawsuits against them.

1970 might reasonably be called the year shoes and health became strange bedfellows. That was the year Earth Shoes made its debut in the United States, just days before our very first Earth Day. Decades earlier, a Danish yoga instructor named Anne Kalso made the observation that when walking on the beach in Brazil, her heel made an imprint in the sand that was the opposite of the way shoes were designed. The imprint of the heel was lower than the toe, not higher. She spent 10 years designing and developing the shoe that featured a lower heel and opened a small store in Copenhagen. Her “negative heel technology” was a hit. Claims that the shoe supported one's natural stance and improved posture had customers clamoring for the shoe, and finally in 1970 a store opened in New York, where lines formed down the street. Never mind that podiatrists could not agree on whether the negative heel helped or hindered foot health, let alone did anything for posture, customers bought the fact that Earth Shoes were good for them. For $38.50 you could improve your posture and your well-being.

It was not the lack of bonafide science behind the shoe that ended Earth Shoe’s run. It was the lack of a decent distribution network, resulting in severe shortages of the shoe, that finally brought Earth Shoe sales back down to earth. By 1980, the world had moved on. Still, the legend continued, and in 2001 the brand rights were purchased by Earth Shoe fan Michel Meynard and the shoe was revived under the brand name Earth, Inc. Today you can buy the (let’s face it) pretty ugly shoe in hundreds of outlets, although it is doubtful the frenzy to buy a pair will ever match the 1970s.

The impact of Earth Shoe was not lost on bigger shoe manufacturers. If you wanted to “Be like Mike,” you needed to buy a pair of Nike Air Jordans. Never mind that no one but Mike was going to be like Mike. The implication was that a pair of Nikes would make you a better ball player. Soon sneaker companies were signing up athletes left and right to hawk their products. That’s advertising, of course. None of them were explicitly saying if you wear our shoe you will become a professional athlete. Just implying. And truthfully, as the science of biomechanics grows ever more sophisticated, many of these shoes might, if not improve your game, at least help minimize injury by adding support here, reducing stress there.

Soon, however, some companies went further. They explicitly claimed that by simply wearing their shoes the customer would glean health benefits. Ever heard of “microwobbleboard technology”? No? Too bad, because according to shoe company FitFlop, it will, “Reduce back stress! Increase bottom muscle activation! Increase hamstring muscle activation! Reduce knee joint stress! Increase lower leg muscle activation! Reduce ankle joint stress! Reduce foot pressure concentration!”

Fantastic! Where can we sign up? Want to increase the muscle tone of your gluteus maximus by 28%? How about your hamstrings and calves by 11%? Just slip on a pair of EasyTones and let Reebok do the work. Do you want to, “stimulate neural function important to balance and agility”? “Eliminate heel lift to align the spine and improve posture”? Well, Vibrams' (unspeakably ugly) toe runners are for you.

You might think that in order to claim health benefits, a company would actually have to have proof the benefits are real. But science was sadly lacking in such instances. What you had instead was a lot of pseudoscientific language. Beginning in 2009, Reebok claimed that EasyTone sneakers and flip flops featured pockets of moving air in the sole, creating something called “microstability” which would tone and strengthen your muscles simply by walking around. You would shape up “with every step.” Ha! A study in 2010 by the American Council on Exercise indicated that toning shoes afforded no better toning than ordinary gym shoes. Complaints from customers escalated, and in 2011 Reebok agreed to resolve charges by the Federal Trade Commission and pay $25 million in refunds to unhappy EasyTone buyers. “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. “Consumers expected to get a workout, not to get worked over.”

In 2010, New Balance offered its own versions of the EasyTone, called TrueBalance and Rock&Tone. Calling the shoes a “hidden beauty secret,” New Balance promised the wearer would burn 8% more calories than ordinary sneakers. Three women in Massachusetts begged to differ. According to their lawyer’s papers, “Wearing the Toning Shoes provides no additional activation to the gluteus, hamstring or calf muscles, and does not burn any additional calories. Moreover, scientists are concerned that wearing the Toning Shoes may lead to injury, a fact which New Balance deceptively omits from its advertising.” New Balance settled the suit for $2.3 million.

How would you like to “Get in Shape Without Setting a Foot in the Gym”? Just “Shape Up While You Walk.” That’s what Skechers was promising. Kim Kardashian, she of the famous derriere, starred in ads where she ditched her personal trainer because Shape Ups kept her in shape just fine. They even had a “doctor” (actually a chiropractor) who touted an independent clinical study proving the benefits of Shape Ups. Unfortunately, the study did not actually prove what the doctor claimed, and never mind that, in a bit of conflict of interest, the doctor was married to a Skechers executive. In 2013, the FTC found Skechers to be profoundly untruthful and Skechers agreed to pay $40 million to settle fraudulent advertising claims. Again, David Vladeck of the FTC: “Skechers’ unfounded claims went beyond stronger and more toned muscles. The company even made claims about weight loss and cardiovascular health.”

The same year Skechers was being reprimanded for Shape Ups, a company called FitFlop USA was called to task for claims it was making about its FitFlop footwear, saying you could “Get a workout while you walk.” FitFlops were supposedly biomechanically engineered using special “microwobbleboard” technology to tighten and tone your legs. The “scientific” studies backing up FitFlop’s claims were shaky, to say the least, not peer-reviewed, and unreliable. FitFlop was sued and settled the case for $5.3 million.

Back in the mid-2000s, a curious barefoot-running craze took hold among serious runners. Vibrams, a shoe company that had a very niche-market product called the five-finger shoe, decided to strike while the craze was hot. The five-finger shoe was originally used by boating enthusiasts to give them firmer grip on slippery wet boat surfaces. The shoe, which fit tightly over each toe like toe socks, was perfect for simulating barefoot-running while also moderately protecting the foot from ground debris. Not content to simply hitch a ride on the barefoot running fad, Vibrams claimed the shoe would decrease foot injuries and strengthen the foot muscles. When, unsurprisingly, the shoe did no such thing, Vibrams was sued, and in 2014 agreed to set aside almost $4 million to refund the cost of the shoe to dissatisfied customers.

The takeaway is, as in all things advertising, if it is too good to be true, it probably isn’t. While all of us would love to have Brad Pitt abs and Kim Kardashian asses, be like Mike and burn calories without perspiring, it usually doesn’t happen that way. We all have to sweat a little to be fit.

Read some consumer tips on how to avoid being taken in by fraudulent exercise gear advertising.

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