Worried about staying sharp as you get older? Chances are you’ve been bombarded with ads claiming you can stay mentally focused by playing simple brain games.
But at least one of the products in this marketing wave, Lumosity, has been making bogus claims, according to the Federal Trade Commission. And now the company behind it has agreed to pay $2 million to settle charges that its “brain training” advertising misled consumers.
Lumosity’s marketing is seemingly inescapable. It claims to have 70 million users across more than 180 countries. Its ads have aired on CNN, NPR, Spotify and Fox News — a lineup that lends it an air of credibility. And to hear the company hawk its wares, you’d think Lumosity offered a cure-all for virtually every mental malady.
“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a news release Tuesday. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”
Lumos Labs, the company that developed Lumosity, charged consumers subscriptions ranging from $14.95 a month to $299.95 for lifetime access to its program, according to the FTC. Beyond citing a lack of research to back up the company's claims, the FTC also alleged the firm failed to disclose that testimonials promoting its product were solicited through contests where consumers received prizes such as iPads or trips to San Francisco.
“Neither the action nor the settlement pertains to the rigor of our research or the quality of the products — it is a reflection of marketing language that has been discontinued,“ a spokesperson for Lumos Lab said in an e-mailed statement. “Our focus as a company has not and will not change: We remain committed to moving the science of cognitive training forward and contributing meaningfully to the field’s community and body of research.”
The spokesperson pointed to a study from Lumos Labs published in the peer-reviewed academic journal PLOSone last year that found participants who used its product for 15 minutes at least five days a week over 10 weeks saw “neuropsychological performance” improvements compared to a control group who did crossword puzzles.
As part of the proposed settlement with the FTC, Lumos will need to have “competent and reliable scientific evidence” before making future claims about the effectiveness of its product. The order also imposes a $50 million judgment against the company that will be suspended after the company pays $2 million to the commission.
An FTC spokesperson said the agency plans to spend the vast majority of that money on consumer refunds. And Lumos will have tell subscribers who signed up for auto-renewal plans between between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2014 about the FTC action and give them a way to cancel their subscriptions, according to the FTC.
The consumer protection agency has increasingly cracked down on apps making vague, health-related claims without having the science to back them up. Last February, the FTC went after the makers of two apps that claimed they could help detect cancerous moles. And in September, a company that claimed its app could improve customers’ vision agreed to settle deceptive advertising charges brought by the agency.