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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Treading Lightly: Vibram comes up FiveFingers short.


Re: COG’s extensive discussion of minimalist footwear: Holy Caballo Blanco! October 15, 2012.

The Huffington Post reports, May 12, 2014:

“If you were one of the 70 million Americans who purchased a pair of those weird-looking “barefoot running” shoes, you may be entitled to some cash.
Vibram, the company behind FiveFingers shoes, just settled a $3.75 million class action lawsuit over false claims that its running shoe yields health benefits, Runner’s World reports.”

Our COG team member’s first response: “No one shoe or type of shoe can do it all for everyone. I still think there is some merit for the design–for some people.
There’re lots of happy barefoot runners out there.”

Our COG team’s second response: “We like the Vibram folks. We cherish our few moments with the late Caballo Blanco [hero of Christopher McDougall’s inspirational Born to Run, the bible of “natural running” advocates] and we still think, “Light is right.”

However, continues Huffington’s report:

“The thin-soled, flexible shoes, which cost about $100 a pair, are said to mimic the experience of running in bare feet, and thus “improve foot health” — an unsupported claim the company falsely advertised.

The lawsuit was first filed by Valerie Bezdek in March 2012. According to court filings, Bezdek claimed that Vibram deployed deceptive marketing and falsely advertised the following benefits from wearing its shoe, without basing its claims on any scientific research:

(1) Strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs 
(2) Improve range of motion in the ankles, feet, and toes
(3) Stimulate neural function important to balance and agility
(4) Eliminate heel lift to align the spine and improve posture
(5) Allow the foot and body to move naturally.

But experts say barefoot running — an experience the shoes are said to mimic — may actually have a negative impact on foot health.”

Language geeks will note: a couple, simple modifiers inserted within Vibram’s advertising copy would have saved the manufacturer nearly four million dollars and lots of bad press. Absent scientific research, copywriters might consider using the subjunctive mood in crafting verb-parts of written assertions. [Verb “helpers” like might and may signal the subjunctive mood…and give lawyers a foothold in fending-off class action lawsuits.]

So far as COG’s foot health is concerned, COG’s had no problems over the last two years. But our testers mostly use minimalist Vibram footwear (two testers, four-pair of Merrells, over two years) for travel and long, town-walking excursions. COG hasn’t run distances in these shoes. But, over eight, 5K road races during this period, COG has run among many elite racers using minimalist footwear. Our non-scientific, anecdotal observation: more than a few elite road-racers seem to do just fine with the thin-soled, Vibram running shoes. Many of these are devotees.

NEVERTHELESS: COG thinks the court’s word of warning is appropriate. Inspirational stories and “back to nature” affections must be subordinate to scientific scrutiny. COG carefully analyzes our own personal biomechanics before putting our thoughts into action. All consumers should apply (critical) skepticism to (advertising) words, as well.

Huffington concludes: “Class action members who purchased a pair of FiveFingers shoes after March 2009 can submit valid claim forms to receive a partial refund of up to $94 per pair, although Runner’s World says the likely payout per person will be between $20 and $50, based on similar settlements in the past.”

COG still thinks, “Light is right…” But, should we take the money anyway?

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