What can we learn from the short history of the Power Balance wrist bands in Australia? It was a pseudo science fad that the Australian Skeptics played a part in ending.
The recent ACCC threat to prosecute retailers who continued to sell them has had an immediate chill effect.
How did it happen? Who’s behind it? Can we do the same to (insert your favourite pseudo science product here)?
What follows is a potted history of the end of the Power Balance fad. (If you disagree or have more to add please make a comment below.)
How did it all start?
Two young entrepreneurial brothers, in Orange County California, Troy Rodarmel and Josh Rodarmel started the company in early 2007.
The business model is quite straight forward: design colourful, stylish wrist bands that can be manufactured very cheaply in China and sell them locally at a much higher price. Market the bands by making health and technology claims and use paid celebrity endorsement to promote the product.
The promotion works on us consumers in the following ways:
› Appeal to the highly competitive nature of professional and amateur athletes. They’ll try anything that gets them that small percentage gain on their competition.
› Exploit the inability of average consumers to distinguish real science from fake science, typically by the use of pseudo scientific terms such as “performance technology”, “frequencies” and “hologram”.
› Exploit the human need to feel special, cool and fashionable.
These techniques are not specific to Power Balance bands. However, of particular annoyance to Skeptics was the use of “applied kinesiology” testing - a discredited, pseudo scientific sounding, alternative health practice; basically a simple magic trick.
The US promoters of Power Balance bands didn’t bother to change the name of these tests; they openly called it applied kinesiology.
As the popularity of Power Balance wrist bands began to grow in the US, they looked to Australia to expand the potential market.
September 2009 – Australia
The distribution and marketing of Power Balance products was managed by Melbourne based business men, Sean Condon and Tom O’Dowd.
This article in the Age newspaper is a good example of the early marketing strategy employed in Australia. Note the lack of critical investigation of the product.
It’s an identical marketing strategy to that used in the US, using the identical unfounded claims for improvement of one’s health. In retrospect, it was a serious error of judgment, Australian laws and regulations are not the same as those in the US.
The main claims were “improved strength and balance” supported by testimonials. (For “testimonials” read “anecdotes”).
The Age newspaper reported on the celebrity endorsement behind the product:
Power Balance Australia pays about a dozen athletes to wear the band, including footballer Brendan Fevola, the NRL’s Benji Marshall, basketballer Andrew Bogut and The Biggest Loser trainer Shannan Ponton.
Australian Current Affairs television program Today Tonight did an uncritical report on Power Balance bands, after which sales began to rise dramatically.
Now we come to the first of the main players willing to take on Power Balance in Australia. In late December 2009, Today Tonight again had a segment on Power Balance wrist bands. This time, Today Tonight asked Australia’s most prominent Skeptic, Richard Saunders to conduct on-camera tests.
Power Balance failed the test. However, despite being shown as ineffective, sales continued to rise. I’m still puzzled by this. If you’re an expert in marketing, I’d really like to know why that might have happened. I can only venture a guess based on the show itself.
It was mentioned that the testing was randomised and blinded and that Power Balance’s protagonist Tom O’Dowd “bombed” (although they didn’t say how many times he bombed). A full, unedited round of one test would have been educational but wasn’t screened. Despite the conclusive nature of the tests, there followed an opinion from a professor who wanted to do more testing on the band. Tom O’Dowd was then seen making an argument from popularity; then an anecdote about super human car lifting strength was shown.
Perhaps consumers just didn’t care about the Today Tonight segment; the product was new, celebrity endorsed, exciting, fashionable and
there were still plenty of people in the market place ready to uncritically believe, hand over $60 and shrug off any thoughts that it might be a waste of money.
Regardless of how the public viewed Power Balance, Richard Saunders was motivated to continue to expose the product for what it was. Richard soon after produced two You Tube videos about Power Balance (which can be viewed here). Throughout 2010 Richard relentlessly wrote about and demonstrated publically the useless nature of the applied kinesiology test at every opportunity.
A complaint about Power Balance promotional claims was lodged with the TGA by Dr Ken Harvey (More details on this later).
It’s difficult to know what the promoters of Power Balance were thinking throughout 2010, ethically what was their position? They’d participated in and seen their product fail testing, a strong indicator that it didn’t work as claimed. Regardless, they continued to sell the product, to make the same claims and to use the applied kinesiology test as the main shtick.
The next thing to enter this story is not a person but another product. It’s the product that brings a smile to any skeptic; introducing the rudely honest, the genuine copy, the openly sham – Placebo Band.
Forget the pseudo scientific nonsense, the marketing slogan says it all: “The Power of Belief”.
I wasn’t quite sure about how the placebo band came about, so I got in contact with the people responsible, Victorians Nick and Tom Croucher, a.k.a. “The SkepticBros”.
Here is my short email interview with “The SkepticBros”.
Mal: How did Placebo band come about? What inspired you?
N&T: We were pretty disgusted with the claims made by Power Balance and thought “hey, if Power Balance can do a stupid arm band so can we”, but we decided that we would do ours with some honesty. We wanted to provide a prop to perform the ‘magic’ tricks that the Power Balance (and other) people were doing, which boiled down to applied kinesiology.
From there the band took on a life of its own and became much more popular than we thought it would, especially after we supplied a custom band for TAMOz, interviews on Skeptically Speaking and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and some Tweets by Adam Savage.
Mal: Could you give approximate dates?
N&T: It all started in August 2010. We had the idea and in about a week’s time we’d teed up a supplier and not long after the TAMOz guys made an order.
Mal: In relation to the Power Balance band, how close to that is the Placebo Band? Made in the same place? Same materials?
N&T: The supplier that we use does make bands of other (non-skeptical) natures, though it is hard to tell if they supply large companies directly or if they supply the cheap(er) knock off bands. They have by mistake placed a band or two that were not of our design into our orders, so we know we are not their only customer.
Skeptics absolutely loved the idea of the Placebo Band and “got it” straight way. At just $2 and openly labelled a placebo it’s the best Power Balance argument stopper of all, i.e.
Apologist – Power Balance worked for me.
Skeptic – How do you know a Placebo Band wouldn’t have worked just as well?
Apologist – People can spend their money on whatever they want.
Skeptic – But they can also spend much less on a Placebo Band, these cost just $2.
Apologist – But the sales people did some testing and showed it worked for me.
Skeptic – let me do the same test on you using a Placebo Band instead.
One part of this story that I don’t know is how Choice Magazine became involved in the Power Balance story. Perhaps it was due to the general hoo-hah being made by many skeptics, or perhaps it was Choice themselves, ever on the watch-out for consumers. Or perhaps it was Dr Ken Harvey’s close association with Choice. (If someone does know please let me know – in the comments.)
In late October, Power Balance were awarded a 2010 Choice Magazine “Shonky” award. As a Choice Magazine spokesperson said at their award ceremony:
The strongest bendiest dumbest and most pseudoscience contribution of the year goes to Power Balance.
The presence of the Australian Skeptics and the Placebo Band was acknowledged at the Choice award ceremony.
Another very well known promoter of science and reason in Australia, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, was outspoken about Power Balance wrist bands. In a segment on ABC radio Triple J, aired in early November 2010, Dr Karl bluntly called power balance “a con”.
Mid November 2010
The next person to introduce in this story is one of Australia’s leading experts on exposing dubious medical devices, Dr Ken Harvey.
Dr Ken Harvey is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, School of Public Health, La Trobe University. Thankfully for us, Ken Harvey is associated with the Victorian Skeptics, (and many other groups with an interest in public health). He’s also a very busy and active campaigner for the promotion of science based medicine and the improvement of public health regulation.
In June 2010, Dr Harvey had been through the arduous task of lodging a complaint about the promotional claims of Power Balance Australia with the Theraputic Goods Administration (TGA). He has lodged many complaints about other products and knows the system well.
Complaints to the TGA are heard by an appointed panel of experts known as the Complaints Resolution Panel (the CRP).
One interesting fact that Dr Harvey recognised but which isn’t generally known, is that even if a product is not registered with the TGA, if dubious health claims are associated with the product, a complaint may be made.
Dr Harvey recognized that Power Balance Australia were making claims of health benefits; specifically that it could improve your balance, strength and flexibility.
Rather than take too much of a tangent from Power Balance story and Dr Ken Harvey’s TGA complaint, I’ll briefly list some of the faults of the TGA complaints system. It will help make sense of what happened and why there was a long delay.
› The CRP is overloaded with complaints. Hence the complaints process takes many months.
› The TGA, in large part, is funded from fees generated by the listing of therapeutic product on the register. An apparent monetary conflict of interest; the more products are listed, the greater the funding for the TGA. There is no equivalent monetary incentive to de-list.
› Even if the CRP finds in favour of a complainant and makes strong recommendations of sanctions, sanctions aren’t enforced. In simple terms, if you complain and the TGA agrees with you that a product and or the marketing is bad – nothing happens.
In response to Dr Harvey’s complaint to the TGA, the CRP handed down a decision on the 15th of November 2010 making strong recommendations of sanctions against Power Balance Australia. (You can read the full details here.)
The nice thing about this part of the story was that this humble blog broke the news of the TGA decision. (Many thanks for passing that one to us, Dr Ken.) One of the sanctions against Power Balance Australia was the requirement to put this disclaimer up on their website within two weeks.
As everyone expected would happen, as the deadline approached and then passed for Power Balance Australia to comply with the TGA sanctions, nothing happened. Power Balance ignored the TGA ruling. It’s estimated that 30% of all shonky product and service promoters do the same thing. TGA sanctions are ignored. Quoting a letter from Dr Harvey:
In theory, the TGA can then invoke Section 42(DM) of the Therapeutic Goods
Act, 1989 which says: “(1) A person is guilty of an offence if:
(a) the person publishes or broadcasts an advertisement about therapeutic goods; and
(b) the advertisement does not comply with the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code. Penalty: 60 penalty units.
However, for reasons known only to the TGA, they don’t take legal action to enforce their sanctions.
As to the next part of the story, I know when it happened but I’m not sure how. Australia’s competition and consumer watchdog (the ACCC) took strong action against Power Balance.
I guess the ACCC monitor TGA rulings. I also guess that the ACCC take note of Choice Magazine’s Shonky awards. There was also the general internet and media din from the Australian Skeptics, thanks again, mainly to Richard Saunders. Whatever it was, our government competition watchdog, one with actual teeth, took action.
Since then, thankfully, Power Balance has faded from view, consigned as a passing fad; the Hula Hoop of wacky testing and pseudo scientific health claims.
To get back to the questions I posed at the start: what do Skeptics do when the next piece of health pseudo science comes along? And how do we deal with dubious devices and treatments currently on sale?
When you look back, it was a huge effort.
Is it really necessary that Skeptics produce sham products, like the Placebo Band, before a government watchdog is embarrassed enough to take action? Does Choice need to give them all a “Shonky”? And why is it that the ACCC appear to be clamping down on shonky health products? Isn’t that the intended role of the TGA?
In actual fact, despite everything that happened in relation to Power Balance, the bands themselves were never withdrawn from sale.
At the time of writing in May 2011, the wrist bands are still for sale for $60 (Australian) on the official Power Balance Australia web site.
The difference, since last December is that the ACCC decided to make the promoters accountable for their claims – “produce the evidence and you can continue to sell it” was the message – otherwise desist and advise consumers that past claims were misleading.
What can be learnt is that Skeptics should forge greater ties with other organisations of like mind; Choice Magazine for instance; also with experts like Dr Harvey. Then there is the need to convince the authorities to take action and get involved with reforms to regulation.
My own view is that the complaints process for therapeutic goods is a frustrating mess. When a bad product or claim is identified, it’s quite likely that nothing will happen. Surely we can do better than that? Although, comparatively the Power Balance story suggests we’re quite good at removing shonky products from sale, (at least the bleeding obvious ones). Power Balance continues to sell in high volume in the US and the UK and we still have plenty of Homeopathy here (shrug).
I wonder what happened to the thousands (more than a million?) Power Balance bands sold in Australia? They may still be on sale right now, but no one is wearing them anymore.