Vibram, the maker of the popular FiveFingers running shoes, recently offered to settle a lawsuit about the Italian company’s health claims in its marketing for $3.75 million. Virbam claimed that its FiveFingers running shoes strengthened muscles and prevented running-associated injuries. The problem? The claims were unsubstantiated by medical science. In fact, a 2013 study in the Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine found that the risk of bone marrow edema, a condition that often foreshadows a future stress fracture, actually increased among runners who used barefoot running shoes.
Much of FiverFingers’ success is often attributed to Christopher McDougall’s New York Times best-selling book Born to Run, which extolls the alleged benefits of “minimalist” running or barefoot running. The book details members of a Mexican Indian tribe and its members’ ability to run long distances barefoot without incurring the injuries common to American runners wearing running shoes.
Vibram has agreed to pay rebates of up to $94 to each consumer who purchased a pair of Fiverfingers shoes since March 21, 2009, according to NBC News. Vibram noted that it did not admit to any wrongdoing but it will drop the health claims from its advertisements of FiveFingers shoes.
Vibram isn’t the first shoe company to engage in allegedly misleading marketing. The Federal Trade Commission sued Skechers, charging that it deceived customers with ads for its Shape-ups “toning shoes.” Skechers made unfounded claims that its shoes would help consumers strengthen and tone their buttocks, abs, and legs, lose weight, and improve cardiovascular health. Some Shape-ups ads included an endorsement by a chiropractor who claimed a clinical study proved the shoes’ effectiveness. However, the FTC alleged in its lawsuit that the study did not produce the results claimed in the advertisement. Additionally, the chiropractor is married to a Skechers marketing executive – a fact left conspicuously absent in the marketing materials. Skechers agreed to pay $40 million to settle allegations that it deceived consumers.
Although we like to pretend the days of Wild West snake oil salesmen making extravagant and unfounded claims are behind us, today’s corporations continue to engage in misleading and deceptive marketing practices. The modern snake oil salesmen employ overhyped and misleading claims that are often cloaked in language that sounds deceptively medical or official. But the process of duping the consumer is identical the snake oil salesmen: make exaggerated or unfounded claims about a product in order to boost sales.
Thankfully, unlike 19th century America, today we have much more robust means of holding deceptive salesmen accountable through the legal system. With Skechers, a federal regulatory agency levied a significant fine against the shoemaker, ensuring that a deceptive product was removed from the market. With Vibram FiveFingers, a private citizen in Massachusetts retained counsel and filed a product liability lawsuit in federal court. Both methods are powerful tools in society’s ongoing fight against bad actors that refuse to play by the rules.