A few days ago I was walking through the local shopping mall and a salesperson staffing one of those ubiquitous kiosks approached me with an intriguing offer. He claimed I could improve my balance, brain functioning and stamina — for only $30 — by wearing a special wristband. Somehow this silicone bracelet with two “ionized holograms” harnesses our natural energy flow and restores our electrical fields, which may have become unbalanced.
Really? Just ask hundreds of successful sports figures. Really.
How does it work, you ask? Well, here’s the “science” behind the original version of the bracelet I saw. According to its Web page, “Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to respond to the natural energy field of the body. The Mylar material at the core of Power Balance has been treated with energy waves at specific frequencies. The resulting Mylar is believed to resonate and work with your body’s natural energy flow to help enable you to perform at the best of your ability.”
Got that? And it doesn’t matter if you purchase the silicone or neoprene version, since the secret is in the holograms.
Needless to say, this sales pitch did not throw my critical thinking brain functioning and skeptical stamina off balance. I resisted purchasing the magic bracelet, despite a money-back guarantee that informed me “there is no assurance that it can work, for everyone.” Got it.
With $35 million in sales in 2010 and millions sold, surely something must work for Power Balance?
Let’s see what some research might tell us. John Porcari, and Rachel Hazuga from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse exercise and sports science department, found no difference in performance among 42 athletes who did not know if they were wearing the authentic wristband or a fake silicone band. All improved in a balance test no matter if they had the $30 or 30 cent version. The researchers attributed this improvement to the placebo effect, and like a pair of lucky socks, if you believe it strongly enough, it will happen. Or to use the Power Balance people’s own words: “Power Balance will not make you stronger than you are, but is designed to help make you as strong as you should be by interacting with your body’s natural energy flow.”
Still, some people are able to resist this marketing push’s own natural energy flow. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission claims these wristbands are no more beneficial than a rubber band and ordered Power Balance to remove the product from the Australian market and issue refunds. The company has since admitted that “there is no credible scientific basis for the claims and therefore no reasonable grounds for making representations about the benefits of the product.” A class-action lawsuit was filed in January claiming similar misleading trade practices are used in the U.S.
The company remains defensive and uses the old technique of promoting anecdotes over scientific methodology: “Numerous actual consumer testimonies supporting the wristbands’ performance were provided to the ACCC by Power Balance. Despite that, they requested Power Balance remove marketing claims until it could provide them with their narrow criteria of randomized, double-blind scientific studies that supports [sic] the use of those marketing phrases.”
Imagine that! Asking for research based on such criteria when testimonies from people — think Shaquille O'Neal! — who need to justify spending $30 on a fancy rubber wristband would do just fine. Narrow criteria indeed.
Scams to promote health should come as no surprise to skeptical thinkers. This is not the first wristband to work wonders. For many years now, copper bracelets have been promoted to alleviate arthritis, improve the immune system, increase iron and zinc in the blood and produce collagen to help heal wounds. Once again, our friend the placebo effect proves to be a powerful force.
While no harm may come from wearing hologram bracelets, other than to one’s wallet, preying on people’s fears about health issues, performance capabilities and physical appearances has unfortunately had a long history. Traveling medicine shows pitched their so-called patented products and bogus equipment that promised miracle cures when used as directed. European mountebanks in the Middle Ages and American medicine men in the 18th and 19th century promoted the art of selling and pushed all sorts of amazing cures for baldness, venereal disease and fatal ailments. The emergence of these so-called “patent medicines” and the harmful results and deaths eventually led to the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act in the United States. Today, the Food and Drug Administration monitors health claims and frauds. Topping the FDA list of scams are supposed remedies for cancer, HIV/AIDS, arthritis, obesity, erectile dysfunction and diabetes.
And its advice provides the basic critical thinking tools we should regularly use: be wary about easy and quick fixes, promises of no-risk money-back guarantees, undocumented anecdotal case histories, use of impressive-sounding terms and secret or natural ingredients.
Does this sound like a neoprene wristband with a secret hologram that I can sell you? The power to keep your life in balance depends less on wearing a bracelet and much more on performing your best skeptical thinking skills.