The federal government says Reebok’s advertising is a bit too cheeky.
In a complaint filed Wednesday in federal court, the Federal Trade Commission said Reebok could not back up its “better way to a better butt” advertising claims in marketing the popular EasyTone and RunTone shoes. The company has agreed to refund $25 million to consumers.
The settlement, which awaits court approval, bans Reebok from making further unsubstantiated claims about the strengthening and toning benefits of its entire line of toning shoes. Reebok started making the pitch in print, television and Internet advertisements in 2009 but pulled the ads in the midst of the FTC probe.
“Advertisers can’t make claims about their product without having some basis for it,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau. “That’s the law.”
Reebok issued a statement Wednesday saying that it chose to settle only to avoid a drawn-out legal battle over shoes that have received “overwhelmingly enthusiastic feedback” from customers. “Settling does not mean we agreed with the FTC’s allegations; we do not,” the statement said.
Toning shoes morphed into a big business when Skechers launched its Shape Ups line in 2009. Competitors such as Reebok and New Balance joined with their versions, all claiming that specially shaped soles create mild instability and force the muscles to work harder.
In its ads, Reebok said EasyTone shoes would result in 28 percent more strength and tone in the buttock muscles than traditional walking shoes and 11 percent more in the hamstring and calf muscles. One ad tagline: “Nice booty. Great sole.”
The refunds also will apply to Reebok’s toning apparel, which the company claimed would tone body parts by creating muscle resistance in certain movements.
FTC officials declined to specify how the issue came to their attention or whether they are investigating other shoemakers that have made similar claims. Class-action lawsuits have accused toning shoe companies with deceptive advertising. The American Council on Exercise recruited a dozen young women, monitored their muscle and exercise response to toning shoes and concluded that they did nothing more for strength or tone than regular running shoes.
Even so, experts who track the industry say that while the FTC settlement may generate some skepticism among consumers, it won’t bring down the product line.
“There are certain industries where all the rulings about claims have not deterred people from buying,” said Candace Corlett, president of the consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. “The promise of a better body from sneakers is analogous to beauty products, where people pay a premium price for hope in a jar.”
The fact that these shoes are now flooding the market will probably do more harm to the industry than the FTC settlement, said Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource, a research firm focused on the sporting goods industry.
Last year, toning shoe sales peaked at $1.1 billion. But sales volume is down 40 percent this year in large part because Skechers vastly overproduced its toning shoes, which forced down prices, Powell said. But the number of shoes sold slipped only 7 percent.
“That tells me that consumers still like this product,” Powell said. After perusing customer comments on popular online shoe stores, Powell concluded that shoppers “don’t find some of the claims for toning shoes to be particularly correct, but they’re buying those shoes because they’re comfortable.”
The EasyTone and RunTone shoes sold for $80 to $100. It’s unclear whether consumers who bought the shoes, as well as Reebok’s JumpTone and TrainTone footwear, will get a full refund.
The FTC first must determine how many customers want their money back. At that point, the agency will be in a better position to divide the money among consumers. The agency has yet to determine what limits to place on the purchase dates.
To request a refund, go to ftc.gov/reebok. The process for distributing any refunds will be monitored by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.
The commission voted 5 to 0 in favor of the complaint.