Lentis/Power Balance, Magnetic Bracelets and Other Strange Cures
Magnetic therapy is a form of alternative medicine using static magnetic fields to increase circulation, blood flow, and oxygen in the body. Increased blood flow is supposed to reduce pain, stress, and mitigate chronic symptoms . The first use of magnets in medicine dates back to the 15th century, with their use expanding in recent decades in alternative medicine and performance enhancement products. The worldwide magnet therapy market is estimated at over $1 billion per year, with $300 million in the United States alone . Through athlete and celebrity endorsements, performance enhancement bracelets, necklaces, and other accessories have been popularized in recent culture. Despite their pseudoscientific claims, these bands have been proven to improve performance through the placebo effect . Within the broader field of magnetic therapy products, this chapter will limit its scope to a case study on Power Balance and generalize its lesson to this performance enhancement accessory market.
Power Balance Bracelets
In the 15th century, German physician Paracelsus believed that since naturally magnetized lodestones attract iron, they could attract diseases and help leach them from the body. Austrian physician Franz Mesmer expanded this in the 18th century with his theory on animal magnetism. Mesmer theorized that there was a natural energetic transfer that occurred between all animated and inanimate objects. Since those times material scientists and engineers have developed stronger permanent magnets, enabling their widespread use in alternative medicine and performance enhancement products.
Troy and Josh Rodarmel, inventors of Power Balance, grew up in Mission Viejo, California with parents who believed in non-traditional and holistic healing practices. Their farther worked for a firm who sold pricey minerals and gems used in eastern medicine products, often referred to as Chinese medicine. These minerals supposedly emit a frequency that boosts a person’s life force, or chi. The brothers sought to develop similar eastern medicine products for the sports industry. In 2006, they stated that after much experimenting they discovered a way to burn the frequencies onto a mylar hologram using a computer program . The holograms were able to be placed onto a lightweight wristband, leading to the creation of the Power Balance band.
Once the brothers had a workable prototype in 2007, they began handing out the bracelets to athletes such as Josh’s Yale football teammates and former high school teammate Mark Sanchez, quarterback at the University of Southern California at the time. The brothers claimed the bands used holographic technology which resonates with the natural energy field of the body and in turn optimizes the body’s natural energy flow. This would in turn improve balance, strength, and flexibility, and even well-being and clarity of thought.
With positive feedback from college athletes, Troy and Josh began selling the Power Balance bands in 2007. They reached $8,000 in the first year, increasing to $200,000 in 2008. By the end of 2009, over 2.5 million bracelets were sold in 30 countries, totaling over $5.6 million dollars in sales. To put this number in prospective, the Japanese company Phiten sold 760,000 bands that year. In 2010, CNBC named Power Balance the Sports Product of the Year after they accrued $35 million in sales worldwide .
Criticism arose as the pseudoscientific claims stated the bands improved balance, strength, and flexibility among other things, yet lacked credible scientific evidence. Studies into the claims determined that they do not work as advertised, with no significant difference in balance, strength, and flexibility between participants who wore the Power Balance bands and those who wore a placebo. In response, founder Josh Rodarmel stated “Power Balance has lived and thrived in the ultimate testing environment, the real world." 
In January 2011, a class action lawsuit was filed against Power Balance, citing false advertising, fraud, and unjust enrichment . This lawsuit was augmented by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) releasing the statement: “claims made by Power Balance were not supported by any credible scientific evidence.”  In September 2011 the lawsuit was settled for a total of $57 million, which entitled any consumer who purchased a Power Balance bracelet a $30 refund for returning the product . After suffering more than $9 million in losses for the fiscal year, Power Balance filed for bankruptcy in November of 2011. The company was forced to release a corrective advertisement, stating “we admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that support our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct.”  The company has since removed all scientific claims from their website and marketing, and removed all video demonstrations and product tests. The public embraced this legal victory over the pseudoscience backing the Power Balance bracelets, and were quick to promote the terms “power scam” and “here be magic” to use humor to ridicule the supporters .
The rise of the industry leader Power Balance created a unique market opportunity for other manufacturers. Among the more popular products are iRenew, EFX Performance, Trion:Z, and Phiten, making claims from returned balance to a person's biofield, a part of the body which holds inner strength, to stabilized electric flow that nerves use to communicate actions to the body. Rehearsed demonstrations and endorsements by athletes and celebrities popularized the products .
Sports performance enhancement products have few marketing strategies that are not directly tied to results. Bracelets such as Power Balance incorporated demonstration videos, where an athlete is depicted testing the effects of the Power Balance bracelet in tests of flexibility, balance, and strength . However, these demonstrations have fatal flaws, specifically falling "victim" of the order effect. While unwitting consumers may not be aware of this scientific effect, humans will naturally be “warmed up” prior to repeating a muscle movement, yielding a significantly better result during a second trial .
Endorsements and Marketing
All products need marketing, especially in their early implementation phases. Even in the case of over the counter prescriptions, “when patients can identify a drug and know how it is supposed to work, there will be a greater positive result." . Brand identity represents familiarity and in some cases social status. The Power Balance bracelet is one of the premier brands in sports performance accessories. The creators of Power Balance distributed their bands to college teammates, spreading the word and garnering free marketing. The next step involved soliciting high profile athletes to use the product, either through giveaways or paid endorsement deals. This style of marketing leads to a form of confirmation bias, or even an “idol effect.” Commercials often show the product performing extraordinary with a paid athlete, while also incorporating real-life testimonials from consumers.
Consumers who claim to receive powerful beneficial effects from these products are quick to support them, claiming that everyone may be affected differently and defending their pseudo-scientific claims. The NBA partnered with Power Balance in November 2012 to incorporate team logos on the bracelets, and distribute them to teams. This is part of a trend of companies looking for corporate league sponsorship to further add legitimacy to athletes and fans. Simply wearing the bracelet is advertising in itself, as well as proof of support from a subset of the athletic community. In lieu of scientific evidence, athletes are very open to trying products claiming to improve performance enhancement as in the case of accessories they have no proven risk .
Opposition stems from consumers who purchased a product and received no positive effect. Those who purchased Power Balance bracelets have called the Power Balance bracelet a “Power Scam” and are the reason for legal outcomes such as class action lawsuits . Outspoken NBA team owner Mark Cuban was filmed throwing Power Balance bracelets supplied by the NBA in the trash, and disallowing his players from wearing them .
In response to their claims the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse Exercise and Health Program conducted an experiment that tested the balance, strength, flexibility and vertical jump with a Power Balance bracelet and a placebo bracelet. The results indicated that there was no change in athletic performance regardless of which bracelet was being worn. The only evidence found was that participants continually scored higher on the second trial regardless of bracelet . This alludes to the order, or learning, effect . Such psychological effects leaves room for marketing to take advantage of this naturally occurring phenomenon, and produce feasible but falsifiable claims. It is not possible for large scientific studies such as the UW-LaCrosse one to target every emerging pseudo-scientific product, so new companies can take advantage of the lack of evidence both in support and opposing their product. Many consumers are not against the technology itself, but the way that technology is marketed, branded, and sold to athletes worldwide with promises of positive results.
The Power of Belief
A performance enhancing supplement or panacea is often marketed without any scientific backing or evidence. The term snake oil has been used to describe such remedies, which stems back to the 1860s in America when Chinese laborers started selling the previously unheard of snake oil to Europeans to relieve joint pain. The term has a negative connotation, representing deceptively marketed products and “cures” that are known to be false.
In the arena of modern athletics, a high degree of superstition leads players to search outside the realm of science and into the realm of speculation and pseudoscience. This leaves open the market for products that would otherwise not be reputable under scientific scrutiny.
The Thomas theorem holds that any individual’s interpretation of a situation will affect the situation, and after a series of such observations, the individual will begin to adjust their behaviors. This can best be illustrated by an athlete who upon having a spectacular performance, may interpret this as the result of an outside influence such as using a particular supplement. The athlete mentally associates this supplement with performing well, and adjusts their lifestyle to maximize usage of the supplement. W.I. Thomas stated “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" .
Here is where the Power Balance bands and similar products derive their perceived beneficial effects — athletes try them out, and if extraneous factors work to their benefit and they perform better while using the product, they may ascribe their success specifically to the product.
The Placebo Effect
The Thomas theorem has important underpinnings to the placebo effect, where a “fake” or irrelevant treatment is given in hopes of stimulating a positive mental reaction. One study tested bicyclists who were either given carbohydrate supplements or a plain bottle of water. They were then broken down into subgroups, with half told they were given the real supplement and the other half told they were given a placebo. The best performers across all groups were those that had been told they were given the carbohydrate supplement and not those that actually ingested the supplement, where performance actually declined slightly . Additional studies have shown results of the placebo effect on sports performance .
The medical industry has the most exposure to the placebo effect where drugs seeking Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval must pass placebo-controlled trials due to the documented benefits patients see from thinking they are taking a drug that will help them, regardless of the true physical effects . There have been limited scientific studies that link magnetic therapy to improvements in depression and mood, but these positive results do not carry over to the field of athletics or physical performance .
The Celebrity Effect
The celebrity effect, similar to celebrity branding, shows that a celebrity endorsement for a product can impart attributes or socially generalized characteristics of that celebrity onto the product itself . This is especially evident with Power Balance bracelets, where successful athlete endorsers will lend legitimacy to the positive effects of Power Balance, and buyers will be more likely to believe the bracelet works when trying it out for themselves. This is important as it forms a foundation of belief from which the placebo effect can operate, just as the bicyclists all believed the carbohydrate supplement would help them. Additionally, the monkey see, monkey do effect is relevant, where followers learn or mimic a process without learning how exactly it works. This is especially applicable to younger athletes, who do not yet comprehend what supplements or bracelets are legitimate in boosting performance, and which are merely snake oil.
In 2010, the Philadelphia Flyers strength and conditioning coach Jim McCrossin distributed Power Balance bands to the entire team in preparation of their postseason games. By the end of the playoffs, 15 players were still wearing the bracelets. Of those, half said the bracelet actually made them perform better and they could feel the difference. The other half claimed they did not feel a difference and did not believe Power Balance worked. However, they were still wearing the bracelets, and when questioned, most responded with "what if?" The Thomas theorem and underlying placebo effects leads to a powerful conclusion for the connection between mental belief and physical performance where supplements need not have any proven scientific effects. Reality is what we make it. This gray area between science and consumerism allows unproven products to be sold, only needing to find the right athletes to believe. And when this belief transforms into realized improved performance, scientific backing becomes irrelevant.
Future expansion of this chapter should look analyze "other strange cures" that possibly rely on pseudoscience and the placebo effect in lieu of scientific evidence.
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