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Skeptical Sunday: The Power Balance Scam

January 9, 2011

If you go to a gym, martial arts studio, basketball court, or some other place of athletic activity, you’ve probably seen people either wearing or selling little rubber wristbands that look much like LIVESTRONG or other such bands. With the difference that these wristbands have a circular patch on them, on which — you’ll find, if you ask about it — there is a hologram.

So…how does the hologram work?

The wristbands go by several trade names, the most popular of which is Power Balance. From their website, the “How it Works” page:

Power Balance is Performance Technology designed to work with your body’s natural energy field. Founded by athletes, Power Balance is a favorite among elite athletes for whom balance, strength and flexibility are important.

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 resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.

…that’s it. That’s the entire page describing “how it works.” Did you notice that it doesn’t actually describe how it works?

The first red flag here is the notion of a “natural energy field.” Any time you see the term “energy” in this way, your Skeptic Sense should go off. As the very informative podcast Skeptoid covers in their very first episode, it’s a fundamental — and common — new age misconception that energy is this homogenous substance of some kind that “flows” or forms “fields.” Energy is a measurement, like inches. You have an electromagnetic field. You have a bloodflow. You don’t have an energy field or a flow. Any time someone says “energy” without specifying what kind of energy they’re talking about, they’re trying to sell you something cheap and ineffective at a tremendous profit margin.

I mean, does the hologram “resonate” with your…electromagnetic field? How? What’s the mechanism, and how does that affect your balance or agility? And how does it “respond”? What is the hologram of and how does that resonate or respond with anything?

An older version of Power Balance’s product line included a card you could put in your pocket which had the same effect. Really.

Anyone with a healthy sense of skepticism would be dubious right away that this is probably a scam. The site makes vague promises, alleging a vague mechanism for vague results.

And in Australia at least, due to that country’s laws, Power Balance has been forced to admit that their product is a total scam.

From elsewhere on their website:

In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility.

We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974.

If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologise and offer a full refund.

I don’t know whether it’s that our laws don’t force them to admit it here, or that there hasn’t been enough public pressure and attention on the issue, but there’s little more to say.

Demonstrations of how these bracelets apparently increase balance or flexibility are magic tricks.

Shaquille O’Neall and David Beckham are not scientists — it doesn’t matter if they say they work, they’re world class athletes to begin with, there is no evidence that their abilities are enhanced. Pointing out their support is a pure argument from authority.

(And consider: if it really worked as a performance enhancer, it would probably be banned from professional athletic competitions. It’s not, because it doesn’t do anything.)

Power Balance, iRenew, and their ilk. They’re complete scams. Save your $30-60.

However, if you spend time around people who are at risk for being scammed, you might consider picking up a Placebo Band. It’s precisely identical to Power Balance et al in aesthetics and construction, but (when available) sells for only $2, and proceeds are donated to charitable organizations. Use it as a conversation starter and spread the skeptical word!

Or don’t. Not everyone needs to be an activist. But for your own sake, don’t waste your money on the “real thing.” It’s just a rubber band.

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