One product has really got skeptics worked up recently: the Power Balance bracelet. In case you are not familiar with it, the Power Balance bracelet is merely a silicone bracelet with a hologram in it. The makers claim that the hologram “work’s with your body’s natural energy field” and is “designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body”. Of course, the manufacturers offer up no scientific evidence whatsoever to back up these claims.
The Power Balance website contains at least one huge contradiction: due to a ruling by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Power Balance were forced to retract claims of efficacy in a corrective advertisement, admitting 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”. However, they released a statement addressing this on their website, where they use an amazing double negative:
Contrary to recent assertions in the Australian press, Power Balance has made no claims that our product does not perform.
So, it is clear that there is no evidence to suggest that wearing a hologram would improve your supporting performance, so why on earth would a professional sportsman wear a Power Balance bracelet, yet alone endorse it?
Quite simply, Power Balance is all about exploiting the psychology of the customer. It starts by relying on the placebo effect, where the athlete in question thinks “I’m wearing something that should make me perform better”, so they EXPECT to perform better, and consequently may feel they are performing better, even if they are not (or in the case of England cricketer Paul Collingwood, getting worse).
I would compare this effect to the feather that the eponymous hero of the Disney film Dumbo carries. Just in case you are not familiar with this character, allow me to explain: Dumbo is a baby elephant with extraordinarily large ears. He gets given a feather by his mentor (who happens to be a mouse, of course), which he’s told is a ‘magic feather’. This gives Dumbo the confidence to use his ears to fly. The feather itself does nothing physical, but it is exerting an effect on the psychology of Dumbo, much like the Power Balance exerts a psychological effect on the people who wear it and believe it works.
Why does Power Balance seem to work as a placebo? There are several important factors:
- It’s shiny
- It’s got the word ‘Power’ in it’s name
- It’s very expensive for a piece of plastic ($29.95)
- It’s sold through a glossy website
- Sportsmen use and endorse it
That last point is worthy of particular attention. Once one sportsman wears it and thinks it works, they influence other sportsmen. This reinforcement continues until the product becomes a familiar and accepted sight. For example, it’s clearly visible many times amongst the members of the England test cricket team.
Why should we care?
It’s very easy to dismiss Power Balance and say “Why should I care if a rich idiot wants to spend £20 on a piece of plastic?”. However, I always find myself asking the same question when I come across something like this: “If you believe in Power Balance, what else do you believe in?”. Power Balance should serve as an example as to what can happen if you let woo into your life. If you’ve wasted money on Power Balance bracelets, what else have you spent on exploitative crap?
On top of that, Power Balance makes about $35 million per year. Is it at all ethical that a company should make that much money by exploiting people’s lack of critical thinking?
What can be done?
Power Balance relies on endorsements from sports stars to further it’s profile. I would love to see a sports star stand up to them and say “Listen people, Power Balance is just a piece of plastic, it does nothing!”. I know that’s highly unlikely, because there is no monetary incentive to do such a thing. Still, I can dream…