Local Reebok runs to catch up
Still punting shoe's properties after US parent told to stop doing so
Footwear that tones your calves, strengthens your legs and firms up your bottom as you move? Sounds too good to be true? Well, that's because it probably is.
Individual US consumers, together with their country's consumer watchdog, challenged global sports brand Reebok International over these very claims, securing a whopping $25-million class action settlement.
The preliminary court settlement last September followed allegations of "unsubstantiated" and "deceptive" advertising about Reebok's toning footwear and clothing. Ads claimed that special sole technology toned and strengthened muscles as you moved.
Included in the range are Reebok EasyTone, RunTone and TrainTone shoes - available in South Africa for R1000 a pair.
US consumer protection agency the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), along with several class-action suits, accused Reebok of claiming such benefits without adequate or reliable evidence.
The payout will be used to refund consumers who bought the products between December 2008 and October 2011.
Reebok International, which has had to amend its advertising, marketing and promotional material, has denied any wrongdoing, saying it stood by its EasyTone technology and settled only "to avoid a protracted legal battle".
The settlement stops Reebok from making claims about the health benefits of its footwear without at least one "well-controlled human clinical study" to back up the claims. The director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, David Vladeck, was reported saying: "If you're going to make specific claims, particularly about health benefits ... you'd better have some kind of adequate substantiation about those claims before you make them.
"Consumers expected to get a workout, not to get worked over."
So how has this important settlement helped South African consumers?
Surprisingly, when I checked, Reebok SA hadn't changed its tune, continuing to boast of the unsupported claims that landed its US head office in court.
Unlike Reebok International's website, which makes no toning boasts, the South African site, up to last week, claimed that RunTone footwear "activates key leg muscles, providing even more benefit by toning and strengthening ... with every step".
And it went on to say: "RunTone is ... a one-of-a-kind running shoe with breakthrough toning benefits."
In describing the shoe's technology, it said it "helps strengthen key leg and butt muscles" by creating natural instability and forcing muscles to adapt and "work harder".
Other than a passing reference to a technique called "electromyography", there was no scientific evidence supplied to support any of the claims.
The local Reebok online store fared no better. A description of the EasyTone Reeinspire shoe declared it could give you a "better butt and legs with every step".
I asked Reebok SA why it hadn't ditched the contentious claims.
It was an "oversight", I was told, and instructions to remove the wording had been "implemented immediately".
Communications manager Shannon Bouwer said Reebok SA respected the settlement and that, following notification in September, had instructed all its retail customers to remove all point-of-sale material and to replace it with wording approved by Reebok International.
However, I later spotted a shop display at Reebok's store at Umhlanga's Gateway mall declaring: "EasyTone ... discover up to 28% more of a workout for your butt, and up to 11% more for your hamstrings and calves."
And when I called three Reebok stores to see how they punted the products, I was given the same pitch about toning benefits, with one salesman suggesting that just strolling around the mall in a pair would give me a "workout".
So I went back to Bouwer for an explanation.
She said the sales information from staff was "not in line" with official policy and would be addressed in a countrywide staff-training programme over the next three weeks. The offending store stand had been "overlooked" when displays were recalled last year.
"That particular material has now been removed, and we are executing a full audit ... as a matter of urgency and ensuring that all material is now compliant and consistent."
Considering this is such a significant and far-reaching shift, I find Reebok SA's implementation of the changes more than a little sloppy.
Bouwer said customers were Reebok's "number one priority", and it would continue to deliver products that they "trusted and loved".
I wouldn't be so sure; trust is hard won and easily lost. The US settlement - and Reebok SA's bumbling response to it - will certainly erode it.
- For more information on the US case, visit www.reeboksettlement.com