Fraud down under, but fine for Canucks

Power Balance wristbands are still sold in Canada, despite a lack of supporting science

These fashionable accessories can be found on the wrists of a huge cross-section of society, and are endorsed by celebrities like David Beckham, Shaquille O’Neal, and Robert De Niro. Numerous testimonials on slick websites offer glowing reviews of how Power Balance wristbands improve strength, balance, and flexibility simply by slipping one on. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

In December 2010, Australian consumer protection advocates managed to put the manufacturer of the Power Balance wristbands under the harsh light of real scrutiny. As a result of this legal inquiry, Power Balance was forced to retract advertisements, issue a formal apology, and offer refunds for the $60 wristbands. Of particular note in their apology was the description of the scientific basis of their claims: “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.”

Despite this damning admission, the same misleading claims have continued in other markets unabated, including in Canada. On the main website of Power Balance International, any links to the Australian affiliate have been conspicuously scrubbed even though the Australian page with the apology is still active. In comparing the Canadian and Australian pages, the FAQ section that contains the misleading “scientific” explanation is absent from the Aussie page, while still prominent on the Canadian website. There is still no indication on the Canadian page that the product has no credible scientific basis. A representative for Power Balance was contacted for an explanation of these discrepancies, but never responded.

For the record, Power Balance and similar energy bracelets do not work as they’re described. The explanation offered alleges that the bracelets function because of holograms “treated with energy waves . . . [that are] believed to resonate and work with your body’s natural energy flow to help enable you to perform at the best of your abilities.” In a double blind test, scientists could not tell the difference between the “embedded frequency holograms” and Pez candy. Furthermore, the material used for the “embedded hologram” is mylar, a material used in other industries as an insulator that acts to stop many different types of “energy fields.” While this idea of a human energy field may be popular and widespread, it is not a scientifically meaningful concept that can be demonstrated to exist.

The popular Q-Ray bracelets are another example of a product that claims to work by “balanc[ing] your own negative and postive [sic] energy forces, optimizing your Bio-Energy.” The unique feature of the Q-Ray are magnets, which have long been a staple of quack medicine. Our blood does contain iron in hemoglobin, but the particular state of that iron is not magnetic. Even static magnetic fields thousands of times larger than those found in the Q-Ray – such as the ones in MRI machines – are not powerful enough to cause measurable effects on blood or tissue. Actually, the effects of small magnetic fields on living tissue, after decades of extensive clinical testing, have not been found to be statistically significant enough to reliably be called good or bad, so any reported benefits from wearing the bracelets are likely to be psychological.

At best, the whole “magic bracelet” idea is no better than a placebo. A BBC investigation into the Power Balance wristbands found no difference between the real thing and a generic plastic lookalike. Those generic plastic wristbands are available from the manufacturer for as low as $3. Power Balance sells these exact items for at least $40 dollars, which is about a 1,300 per cent markup over the knockoff. For a product that is admitted to have “no scientific evidence to support their claims,” that is quite a profit margin. In fact, Power Balance has made so much money from this scam that they could afford to buy out the Sacramento Kings’ Arco Arena, which is now the Power Balance Pavilion. At least someone isn’t suffering from the recession.

This shamelessness isn’t new – James Randi, founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, has spend much of his considerable career dealing with pseudoscientific claims. In an interview at a McGill’s symposium “Confronting Pseudoscience: A Call to Action,” he remarked: “When we say ‘pseudoscience,’ what we’re really talking about is bad logic and faulty reasoning. These things are damaging to society precisely because societies take actions, and when you take actions based upon dumb ideas, you are likely to take dumb actions.”

“What needs changing is the way the media deals with the conflicting claims of science and pseudoscience. You can’t be ‘fair and balanced.’ You can only be fair or balanced. To be fair is to tell the truth; to be balanced is to tell a truth, tell a lie, and then let the public determine which is which – and this, of course, isn’t fair to anyone.”

From a consumer protection standpoint, the truth is that these products are a scam. They are nothing more than modern snake oil that may make you feel better, but only because of the placebo effect. You should know that you could probably keep that $40 and get the exact same thing for $3. That is, if you still want one.