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FTC Stomps on Reebok: Beware of Overhyped Health-Related Advertising Claims

6 Dec, 2011 By: Arthur Yoon, Jeffrey Richter

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently announced that athletic shoemaker Reebok International Ltd. has agreed to settle charges that it deceptively advertised its “toning” shoes, which the company claimed would provide extra tone and strength to leg and buttock muscles. (A copy of the settlement agreement between the FTC and Reebok can be found here.) Reebok is required to pay $25 million for refunds to individuals who bought the Reebok EasyTone or RunTone toning shoes.

The FTC sued Reebok under Section 45(a) of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce, and under Section 52, which prohibits false advertisements for food, drugs, devices, services or cosmetics. According to the FTC’s complaint, Reebok made unsupported claims in print, television and Internet advertisements that using the toning shoes strengthen and tone key leg and buttock muscles more than regular shoes.

For example, an EasyTone shoe ad claimed: “Get a Better Butt. Get Better Legs. Get EasyTone. EasyTone sole technology gives you up to 28-percent more toning in your calves, hamstrings, and, oh yes, your butt.” The FTC contended that Reebok made these claims based on inadequate proof.

Under the settlement agreement, Reebok is generally barred from making any health or fitness-related efficacy claims for toning shoes and other toning apparel unless the claims are true and backed by adequate scientific evidence. Although Reebok had apparently conducted an independent lab study, it did not comply with the FTC’s standard of "competent and reliable scientific evidence," which must be met in order for an advertiser to adequately substantiate the efficacy of any health-related claims.

In regard to the FTC’s standard, the settlement agreement provides that any representations about the amount of muscle toning or strengthening associated with the wearing of the toning shoes must be based on a clinical study that conforms to acceptable designs and protocols, the result of which, when considered in light of the entire body of relevant and reliable scientific evidence, is sufficient to substantiate that the representation is true. The clinical study, according to the settlement agreement, must be randomized, controlled, blinded to the maximum extent practicable, of at least six weeks duration, use an appropriate measurement tool or tools, and be conducted by persons qualified by training and experience to conduct and measure compliance with such a study.

The enforcement action against Reebok demonstrates that the FTC will prosecute an advertiser that makes overhyped health-related advertising claims, and that it will impose substantial penalties on an advertiser that makes such claims without an adequate scientific basis. An advertiser that makes health-related claims should closely review, with the assistance of legal counsel, the guidance provided by the settlement agreement in order to ensure that its health-related claims (or that of its competitor) are based on adequate proof and comply with the FTC's advertising rules.

Jeffrey Richter is a partner and Arthur Yoon is an associate at Los Angeles-based Finestone & Richter. They can be reached at (310) 575-0800, or at [email protected] and [email protected].

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