The PowerBalance Theist

This is a guest post by Clinton Birch, a South African blogger whose writing can be found on news24. I hope you enjoy it and please catch up with Clinton on Facebook.

In 2010 everybody was in awe of the Power Balance – the simple holograph equipped silicon rubber-like wristband. This simple device was being credited with giving athletes improved strength, balance and flexibility. The makers claim that almost everything has a frequency inherent to it. Some frequencies react positively with your body and others negatively. When the hologram comes in contact with your body’s energy field, it allows your body to interact with the natural, beneficial frequency stored within the hologram. This results in improved energy flow throughout your body.

So does it work? Well the makers used public demonstrations to show the effect their wristbands were having. The audience was free to feel for themselves the improvements in strength, balance and flexibility that the device was giving to them. The wristbands were selling for approximately R600 and were selling as fast as they could be imported – not only athletes but everybody wanted to use them. Very quickly scores of top athletes were seen sporting them on their wrists – all sports and activities. The public realised with this sort of evidence there had to be something to the maker’s claims and so the sales continued to rise almost exponentially. Even prominent public figures were seen with the colourful wristbands, even if they were not athletes. There are even pictures of Bill Clinton wearing a Power Balance wristband (and not sure where he would need improved strength, balance and flexibility except during his post-work activities). Needless to say soon there were competing brands and cheap counterfeit copies from the east – and it was a well known fact that they did not have the same effect as the genuine Power Balance wristbands.

And then the scientists spoiled the party – and actually started testing the devices (YouTube). They could not detect any physical effect that the device was having on the body to justify the maker’s claims. They then did performance testing using athletes, some wearing the original Power Balance wristbands and a test group wearing the wristbands with the hologram removed. All the wristbands were covered so that the athletes did not know if they had the wristband still fitted with the hologram or if it had been removed. It was soon established that the test group and those wearing the genuine article were indistinguishable from each other when it came to strength, balance and flexibility.
So if the scientists disproved the maker’s claims – how was it that the athletes and wearers of the wristbands could experience the effects? Most of the initial sales were being made based on the personal recommendations of top athletes, but quickly the sales were being based on recommendations of friends and families. As a non-sporting type person, I did not see the Power Balance wristbands advertised in the marathon or cycling magazines, but saw and heard about them from sporty friends, who all claim to have experienced the positive effects the wristbands were having. Surely they would not lie to me? What would the benefit of lying to me be for them? They were not selling them? So surely then they must work?

So now we have to look at this from a different perspective – call it the human mind perspective. Science has shown that the device should have no effect and thus should not improve strength, balance and flexibility but that’s exactly what the wearers are claiming to experience. So if the testing did not show a measurable improvement but the wearers experienced it – then the effect had to be in the wearers minds. The human mind is incredible at creating its own reality – the people wearing them believed there was an improvement and thus to them this is what they were experiencing. This effect is well known in medical science and is called the placebo effect. The placebo effect points to the importance of perception and the brain’s role in physical health. In any testing of new drugs etc. there is always a control group given a substance resembling the real substance – and the difference in effect between the actual group and control group is then measured. It really is a case of if you believe a pill will cure your headache then even a sugar pill could have that effect on you and your headache will go away. The human mind is really an incredible thing.

So back to the Power Balance wristband – the scientists went public with their findings. To cut a long story short the whole Power Balance story was shown to be a scam. Even the makers have admitted that their product was a hoax and there is really no real benefit to wearing one. In January 2011, a suit was filed against the company for fraud, false advertising, unfair competition and unjust enrichment. Power Balance agreed in September 2011 to settle the class action lawsuit. The settlement terms entitled Power Balance purchasers to a full $30 refund plus $5 shipping but this was never finalised because in November 2011, Power Balance filed for bankruptcy after suffering a net loss of more than $9 million that year. I wonder how many Power Balance wristbands are lying in the bottom of draws never to be shown in public again – the owner knowing he was suckered into the scam and may even have helped perpetuate the scam by claiming he had experienced the benefits of the wristband.

So now dear reader – you should be comfortable with a few aspects of this story – and let me recap:
• The maker makes claims about his product
• The product becomes widely successful and is endorsed by very well known public figures
• Your own friends are claiming to have personally felt the effects
• You feel that you also need to experience the same benefits and join the in-crowd and are also seen wearing the product
• The effects can be felt by you – and so you have no question as to the effectiveness of the product and also recommend it to your own friends
• You hear about competing products that are also on the market but believe they are counterfeit and will not work like the original product
• Science then test the products – and claims they cannot determine any effect
• The product is revealed as a scam
• You feel embarrassed and hide your once proudly worn product in the deepest draw drawer – hoping none of your friends remind you that you encouraged them to buy one too
• Luckily they are also embarrassed about their own wristbands and also hide theirs
• You sort of follow the ensuing legal battle between the makers and various groups trying to claim that they have a claim for damages – but would rather have the whole story just go away especially now you know the chance of getting a refund is zero as the company is bankrupt.

Does this whole story sound vaguely familiar in another very important aspect of our lives? The main difference between Religion and Power Balance is that religion has the benefit of many thousands of years of history to counter the scientific proof against it. And we know that Religion will never be dragged into court for false advertising and making claims that it could not deliver on. On the other hand – the mind is capable of producing miracles if you just believe.

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13 responses to “The PowerBalance Theist

  1. Thanks for the positive comments. I am sorry about the grammar – the reason I wrote this article as well as a few others is to improve my writing skills. I am realising the importance of grammar as for the first time in my life I am marking reports – and find myself cringing at the poor language I am being exposed to at University.

  2. I personally critisized Clinton on his article, but guess what? I actually think it’s great! Was just not in the mood that day, and today (after reading it for a second time) I want to compliment the prof on a job well done.

  3. The first thin I noticed when demonstrated the power balance thingy, was that it was not so much the placebo effect, but that first the demonstrator pushes you from behind, or wherever. You are not ready for this, so you unbalance easily. Then you hold the bracelet, and they push you again. This time you are aware of the resistance required to counteract the push, and you are far more stable.
    I waited for the next customer, and gave him a bracelet to hold, and shoved him from behind, he nearly fell over, so I took the bracelet away and tried it again, and he didn’t budge.

    • Hi Keith,

      How you push on the person trying the PB bracelet makes all the difference, as you rightly pointed out.

      • I do not think that there is any placebo effect with these wristbands at all. A sugar pill actually makes a difference – it does have a measurable effect. These wristbands, as far as I can gather, make no difference at all.

        In this respect I differ with Clinton.

        However, well done, Clinton. I cannot comment on the News24 pages as I refuse to do the FB thing, but I read and enjoyed your article.

        • “A sugar pill actually makes a measurable effect”, well, sure, but you’re being highly ambiguous here, effect on what? Blood glucose levels? Sure. Balance?, only placebo effect (which is measurable). No effect other than placebo demonstrated. The little test of pushing a person when they’re not expecting it then giving them the bracelet and giving them another (expected) shove only hightens the expectaion of it working, hence enhanced placebo efect.

  4. Great stuff! But an article about scientific repudiation should at least cite the evidence. I know it’s easy to do, but it’s lazy minds that bought those bracelets in the first place 😛 Here are some useful links:

    http://m.gizmodo.com/5723577/powerbalance-admits-their-wristbands-are-a-scam
    http://m.gizmodo.com/5861816/powerbalance-scam-forces-company-into-bankrupcy

    And I’m sorry to say this because it’s otherwise such a well-written article, but it’s drawer, not draw.

    • Thank you Rupert, I know it’s no excuse but I posted this in quite a rush due to TERRIBLE internet connection.

      Thank you for the links, I will try and incorporate more this weekend (Neotel permitting).

  5. Ooooh Angela. Quick, before anyone else notices, change your opening paragraph word ‘silicon’ to ‘silicone’!!

    LIke ‘Silicon Valley’ is where they make computer chips; ‘Silicone Valley’ is the gap between breast implants!

    Keep up the good work.
    Robin

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