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Reebok to pay $25m over toning shoe claims

FTC says buyers will get refunds

The FTC said Reebok made specific performance claims related to its EasyTone sneakers without having proof. The FTC said Reebok made specific performance claims related to its EasyTone sneakers without having proof.
(Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / September 29, 2011

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Reebok International Ltd. will refund $25 million to customers who bought its popular toning shoes, in one of the largest settlements ever reached between a company and the federal government over deceptive advertising claims.

A complaint filed yesterday by the Federal Trade Commission said the Canton footwear maker’s ads frequently featured “very toned, scantily-clad, and sometimes nude’’ women who falsely said that the shoes had been shown to tighten muscles.

As part of the settlement, Reebok is barred from using such claims to market its toning merchandise. Toning shoes - sneakers designed with unstable soles so leg muscles have to work harder to maintain balance during everyday activities - were the fastest growing segment in the footwear industry last year, with sales soaring to $1.1 billion from $350 million in 2009, according to Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOne Source. The sneakers were sold at a premium of roughly $100 a pair, though prices have dropped significantly in recent months because of an inventory glut.

In one ad cited by the FTC and shown on television and the Internet, a model, wearing little clothing, said, “Reebok EasyTone shoes not only look fantastic, they’ll help make your legs and butt look great, too.’’

Larissa Bungo, a member of the FTC’s case team, said Reebok made specific performance claims related to its toning shoes without having proof. For example, EasyTone ads said the footwear was proven to improve muscle tone and strength by 28 percent and work hamstring and calf muscles 11 percent harder than regular sneakers.

“We want all marketers to know they must have substantiation for their claims prior to making them,’’ Bungo said.

Reebok said yesterday that it stands behind the toning technology. “Settling does not mean we agree with the FTC’s allegations; we do not,’’ the company said in a statement. “We have received overwhelmingly enthusiastic feedback from thousands of EasyTone customers, and we remain committed to the further development of our EasyTone products.’’

Reebok - owned by German athletic gear giant Adidas Group - is the first manufacturer to settle false advertising charges over toning shoes, but others also are under scrutiny. Skechers, the largest toning brand with about half the market, disclosed in a securities filing last month that the FTC is reviewing its advertising claims. And in a lawsuit filed by a California woman, New Balance is accused of deceiving customers by promising its toning shoes create more sculpted legs than traditional walking sneakers. The Boston brand declined to comment on the Reebok settlement.

Customers who bought Reebok toning products and want a refund can go to www.ftc.gov/reebok to submit a claim. The settlement covers toning shoes and apparel, including EasyTone, RunTone, TrainTone, JumpTone, SimplyTone, and SlimTone, purchased on or after Dec. 5, 2008. Consumers who submit refund requests in excess of $200 may be asked to provide proof of purchase.

During the past year, fitness and medical professionals have raised concerns that the shoes could do more harm than good. A study released in 2010 by the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit, concluded that the shoes failed to live up to fitness promises made by manufacturers.

“People do want to believe in an effortless approach to becoming fit,’’ Cedric X. Bryant, the council’s chief science officer, said yesterday. “But the claims that customers were inundated with - that these shoes helped burn calories and produced a firmer butt - simply were not supported by the research. It’s not a sexy message, but getting fit requires a combination of regular activity, sensible eating, and making lifestyle changes.’’

Some reports of injuries with toning shoes have added to worries. Cindy Pezza, a podiatric assistant in Stoughton who oversees her office’s therapeutic shoe program, said she continues to see patients who have worn toning shoes for several months and complain of pain and tightness in the heel, calf, and Achilles’ tendon.

Pezza purchased her own pair of EasyTone sneakers, but set them aside after two months. She is not sure whether she will apply for a refund, but doesn’t plan on wearing the toning sneakers any time soon.

“I didn’t feel stable in them, and I didn’t really see any difference,’’ Pezza said. “People buy them because they saw the commercial with the girl in the little short shorts and long legs. But she didn’t get those from wearing the sneakers. She runs 10 miles a day. I knew that. I couldn’t run three miles in them.’’

Chris Cakebread, a Boston University professor who teaches advertising and sports marketing, said the FTC settlement with Reebok reinforces the negative perception so many people have of advertising.

“I would equate Reebok toning shoe marketing with bad diet pill advertising,’’ Cakebread said. “You get what you pay for, buyer beware.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.