One of the fastest-growing footwear categories has had its finely toned legs cut out from under it after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced Wednesday it had reached a settlement with Reebok International Ltd. over charges the company had used deceptive advertising in marketing its popular toning shoes.
The settlement, which will create a $25-million (U.S.) fund to reimburse American consumers who had bought EasyTone shoes, RunTone flip-flops, and Reebok toning apparel in hopes of firming their legs, butt, and core merely by walking, represents the first time the FTC has struck back against marketers of toning wear, which has grown from a standing start in 2008 to a projected $2-billion this year.
Reebok had claimed in television and other advertisements that wearing EasyTone shoes could tone the gluteus maximus up to 28-per-cent more, and calf muscles up to 11-per-cent more, than regular sneakers.
“For the millions of Americans who paid up to $100 for a pair of Reebok toning shoes, Reebok’s claims didn’t withstand scrutiny,” declared David Vladeck, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The consumers expected to get a workout, not get worked over.”
The settlement is likely to push the sector, which has exploded despite controversy and ridicule by comedians and commentators, back on its heels. Both Reebok and New Balance, another marketer of toning shoes, are already facing class-action suits and, last January, the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau recommended Reebok stop making certain health claims in its advertising. Skechers also ran afoul of parents last spring with advertising for its Shape-Ups toning shoes aimed at adolescent girls.
Reebok issued a statement saying it disagreed with the FTC’s findings but was settling the matter to avoid a lengthy and costly legal battle.
But if the restrictions will make it tough to offer a scientific differentiator to help toning shoes stand out from other footwear, a Reebok spokesman noted its advertising had already shifted away from specific claims. One recent EasyTone commercial features a twirling parade of women’s finely toned rear-ends and lower extremities with a voiceover claiming the shoes are “designed to tone your hamstrings, calves, and butt more than regular sneakers.”
It concludes with the unscientific claim: “Better legs and a better butt with every step.”
In announcing the settlement, Mr. Vladeck took pains to remind consumers: “There is no such thing as a no-work, no-sweat way to a fit or healthy body.”
In doing so, he echoed the head of Canada’s Competition Bureau in its declaration earlier this month that Nivea had deceptively advertised its My Silhouette skin cream by claiming it could help reduce the size of certain body parts. “There is no easy fix,” said Melanie Aitken, the Commissioner of Competition.
Now, the FTC’s action calls into question whether the Competition Bureau may pursue its own settlement with the Canadian division of Reebok. The bureau does not comment on whether it is investigating a company, but its spokesman Greg Scott said: “We take all the allegations seriously.”
“If consumers feel a company is engaging in misrepresentation, we’d certainly encourage them to let us know. And obviously we’re aware of the FTC decision, and we’ll continue to look at any claims where we think anticompetitive behaviour has taken place.”