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Alex Beam

Wrist watch

Dogged by lawsuits over its Shaq-endorsed hologram bracelets, Power Balance faces false advertising claims

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / March 22, 2011

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Boston Celtics center Shaquille O’Neal has been sucked into a maelstrom of litigation swirling around the cutesy Power Balance silicone-cum-hologram wristband that, he says, raises his game. Until recently, the California company made similar, extravagant claims about its product’s performance-enhancing powers.

Shaq is one of Power Balance’s most prominent paid celebrity endorsers. In a widely viewed YouTube video, he describes how one of his former NBA teams, the Phoenix Suns, played well above their heads while three teammates were wearing the wristband. “When I took it off, I went back to normal.’’ he says. “It helps your endurance, your balance, your flexibility, and your strength.’’ “I don’t do a lot of testimonials,’’ he says, adding: “I’m here to tell you that it works.’’

Here is another view, cribbed from the mountain of legal complaints piling up in courtrooms across the country: “In fact, the Power Balance holograms are nothing short of snake oil.’’ The same lawsuit says that Shaq and his fellow endorser, Los Angeles Lakers player Lamar Odom, “knew or should have known that Power Balance products are incapable of enhancing performance or increasing endurance, flexibility or strength.’’

“Celebrity endorsers need to be accountable to the general public when they accept significant sums of money to promote a product that can’t deliver its promised benefits,’’ says attorney Greg Blankinship, who is suing Power Balance executives, Shaq, and Odom in Los Angeles. Fifteen suits have been filed against Power Balance in California, Florida, Alabama, and New Jersey.

Shaq’s lawyer declined to comment, bouncing my inquiry to Power Balance spokeswoman Sara Jones. In a prepared statement, Jones reasserted the company’s faith in its “frequency-treated polyester film holograms, which are intended to mimic the way certain natural elements positively react with the human body. . . . As with many early technologies, especially one involving Eastern beliefs, we recognize the potential for confusion in the marketplace.’’

She added that “Power Balance is undertaking a series of clinical studies to further validate and quantify the benefits of our Performance Technology. These studies will be conducted according to scientific review standards and clinical protocol.’’

The colorful wristbands, which cost about $30, made a fair bid toward supplanting Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong yellow bracelet as the must-have accessory for the paparazzi prone. At various times, David Beckham, Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kate Middleton have sported the so-called wearable performance technology.

The Power Balance phenomenon reminds me of those copper wristbands that oldsters used to wear, in the belief that the metal alleviated their rheumatism. Those wristbands had a placebo effect, and that seems to be the kindest thing one can say about the Power Balance product. “I’m not aware of any research that supports the technology behind these bands,’’ says Dr. Victor Thompson, a sports psychologist who is quoted in the anti-Shaq lawsuit.

Nowadays there is very little scientific or pseudo-scientific information on Power Balance’s website. Not so long ago, however, Power Balance brayed about its “revolutionary holographic technology designed to resonate with your body’s Bio-field, creating a state of coherency and harmonic balance.’’ And: “Specific ‘energies’ are isolated and light encoded into an aluminum-silicon based medium.’’ And: “The Mylar material at the core of Power Balance has been treated with energy waves at specific frequencies. The resulting Mylar is believed to resonate and work with your body’s natural energy flow.’’

Sounds like bushwa. But don’t take my word for it. Australia, which has stricter advertising regulations than the United States, investigated the bracelet’s claims and concluded that they were vaporous. The chairman of the country’s Competition and Consumer Commission announced late last year that “Power Balance has admitted that there is no credible scientific basis for the claims and therefore no reasonable grounds for making representations about the benefits of the product.’’

Down under, Power Balance was forced to publish a humiliating climb-down, which read in part: “In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct. . . . If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologize and offer a full refund.’’

The slapdown in Australia emboldened America’s trigger-happy class-action bar. Many of the class action suits simply integrate the Australian findings as “proof’’ that Power Balance has rooked its customers. What do the lawyers want? Money, of course! And plenty of it. In order to pursue a class-action case in federal court, you must demonstrate an “amount in controversy’’ of at least $5 million. Spokeswoman Jones says the company is hoping to settle the litigation as early as this week.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.