Power Balance Products: A Skeptical Look

Harriet Hall, M.D.

Power Balance products will supposedly improve your athletic performance and cure what ails you. The alleged mechanism ("frequencies" in an embedded hologram) is laughable pseudoscientific bunk.

Remember when professional golfers were wearing Q-ray bracelets to improve their game? The Q-ray folks recently had a run-in with the courts. They admitted their product was only a placebo but argued that it was acceptable to lie to elicit the placebo response. The Federal Trade Commission disagreed and obtained a court order fining the company and banning further deceptive advertising [1]. Now they have a competitor: Power Balance Performance Technology. Like the Q-ray bracelet, it is based on "resonance." It doesn't even have to come in contact with your body: one version is a card that you simply put in your pocket.

Imaginative Claims

Power Balance representatives demonstrate their products in sports stores at malls. They purport to test your strength and balance and then give you a Power Balance card to hold or put in your pocket. When they retest you, you miraculously do better. There are some revealing videos on YouTube, including a short clip that shows the subject standing on one foot with arms outstretched. The salesman pushes down on the subject's arm near the wrist, and the subject starts to fall over. After the subject puts a Power Balance card in his pocket, the salesman repeats the test but this time pushes down near the elbow, creating a shorter lever arm that of course reduces the effect of the force applied, so the subject doesn't fall over. In other demonstrations, they use other simple biomechanical tricks like this to create false impressions of improved strength. The amount of force applied is subjective, both parties know when the card is in use, and they know what is expected to happen—it's a recipe for self-deception.

What's in these magic cards? I will quote at length from their Web site for the entertainment value:

POWER BALANCE Performance Technology has been embedded with naturally occurring frequencies found in nature that have been known to react positively with the body's energy field. This helps to promote balance, flexibility, strength and overall wellness.

For thousands of years, eastern medicine has been using the same techniques for personal wellness through finding things in nature that react positively with your body, such as rocks, minerals, crystals, etc. Through kinesiology we have learned that certain foods cause the body to react either positively or negatively as well. Although not all substances found in nature work the same on everyone, we have narrowed it down to a few that we believe are highly beneficial and have put them together to create Power Balance Performance Technology.

It's hard to argue with nature and the fact is that everything in nature resonates at a particular frequency. That is what keeps it all together. We react with frequency because we are a frequency. Most simply, we are a bunch of cells held together by frequency. If you hold processed sugar or a cell phone in your hand and hold your arm straight out to your side and have someone push your arm down while you resist, it goes down pretty easily because processed sugar and cellular telephones do not react positively with the human body. Basically, the frequencies in sugar and cell phones create a reaction that makes your body weaker. Adversely, if you put certain vitamins or minerals in your hand and do the same test with your arm, you will find it is much harder for that person to push your arm down. Your body's energy field likes things that are good for it and craves to be around those things. At Power Balance, we have taken a few of those items and through advances in technology, have been able to duplicate those positive energies and imprint them onto our holographic media.

Why Holograms? We use holograms because they are composed of Mylar—a polyester film used for imprinting music, movies, pictures, and other data. Thus, it was a natural fit. In fact, the hologram is so complex with such infinite depth and minimal surface area, that many companies are now using them as hard drives. Along those same lines, we felt that it would be a lot easier to get someone to put a hologram in there [sic] shoe rather then [sic] a Power Balance equipped rock or apple.

Power Balance products include a ten-pack of stick-on embedded holograms ($59.95), a pendant ($39.95), a wristband ($29.95), and an eight-pack of pocket cards ($59.95).

The company targets athletes, 36 of whom appear with testimonials on its Web site. According to numerous testimonials, Power Balance seems to improve performance. One surfer claims he can even sense the presence of the card: "I can feel it on me." Another testimonial is from Tommy Grunt, United States Marine Corps. Maybe Grunt is real, but ads for quack products have been known to feature fabricated testimonials, and I can easily imagine a copywriter putting tongue in cheek and creating a name like that to relieve the boredom. There are reports of the products' effectiveness in animals, from horses to birds. The products allegedly relieve headaches, menstrual pain, and all kinds of other symptoms. The testimonials give the impression that if you feel unwell in any way, the magic card will restore you to normal. If you already feel well, it will make you better than normal.

"A primitive form of this technology was discovered when someone, somewhere along the line, picked up a rock and felt something that reacted positively with his body." I don't doubt that someone believed he felt something, but I seriously doubt it was due to the frequency of the rock resonating with the frequency of his body. For resonance to occur, something has to vibrate. You may be able to make a rock resonate, but the rock doesn't create its own vibrations. Crystalline structures can be made to vibrate. The tympanic membrane and the vocal cords vibrate, but the whole body doesn't. When a soprano wants to break a glass with her voice, she can first listen to the sound made by tapping it with a spoon; if she can match that sound frequency, the glass will resonate and possibly shatter. How can you tap a cat to see what its frequency is? Can you imagine a soprano shattering a cat?

This whole resonance and vibration business is pseudoscience emanating from the myth of the human energy field—not the kind of energy physicists measure but some vague life energy like the acupuncturists' qi, the chiropractors' Innate, and the imaginary fields that Therapeutic Touch practitioners claim they are smoothing down with their hands. "We are a frequency" and "We are a bunch of cells held together by frequency" and "Your body's energy field likes things that are good for it" are statements so incoherent, so much at odds with scientific knowledge, that they "aren't even wrong."

The definition of frequency is "the number of repetitions of a periodic process in a unit of time." A frequency can't exist in isolation. There has to be a periodic process, like a sound wave, a radio wave, a clock pendulum, or a train passing by at the rate of x boxcars per minute. The phrase "33 1/3 per minute" is meaningless: you can't have an rpm without an r. A periodic process can have a frequency, but an armadillo and a tomato can't. Neither a periodic process nor a person can "be" a frequency.

Omitting for a moment the crucial question "Frequencies of what?" how did the Power Balance creators determine which frequencies to use? "We have narrowed it down to a few that we believe are highly beneficial." Okay . . . exactly how did they measure the frequencies, and what criteria did they use to narrow them down? I think the wording of the ad is revealing: the company says they "believe" they are highly beneficial, not that they have any evidence that they are. Another crucial question is—assuming there really are frequencies—how can they be put into a hologram? I e-mailed the company and asked simple questions like "How do you measure the frequency of a rock?" They didn't answer.

Test Results

Pushing down on the arm is a bogus muscle-testing technique known as applied kinesiology. It is supposedly used to diagnose allergies: if you hold a sealed vial of an allergen, your strength supposedly diminishes. It only works if the practitioner and patient know what substance is being tested; when double-blind controls have been used, kinesiology has failed every test [2].

In online discussions, one man "tested" the product by having one hundred athletes try it, with no controls of any kind. Not surprisingly, all of the athletes reported improvement. A man watching a demonstration suggested a real test, blinding the subject as to whether the card was present, but (not surprisingly) the salesman wouldn't cooperate.

This would be so simple to test properly. Take five Power Balance cards and five credit cards, put them in opaque envelopes, shuffle, number the envelopes 1 through 10, have a third party slip an envelope in the subject's pocket, and then challenge the salesman to tell which envelopes have the real card. I could not find evidence that they have ever done such a test, presumably because they know it would fail. A more elaborate test could hook subjects up to a machine that tests muscle strength and have them exercise repeatedly without knowing whether or not they were in contact with the magic hologram.

Tests of the first type were actually carried out on an Australian television show called Today Tonight. During the program, Tom O'Dowd, who sells the bracelets in Australia, carried out his usual balance and strength routine with six volunteers. First he used a card supposedly embedded with the hologram, then used a bracelet. All six volunteers reported a positive reaction, but all the volunteers were aware when they came into contact with the hologram and the bracelet. Richard Saunders from the Australian Sceptics Society, who observed the demonstration, thought that the "increased arm strength" occurred because the force O'Dowd varied the angles from which he applied the force. Then the tests were repeated using six cards, without either O'Dowd or the volunteers being able to tell which card was in their pocket. Six cards were randomly placed in the pockets of the six volunteers. Only one had the card with the hologram. O'Dowd was unable to tell who it was. The same experiment was repeated using the bracelet. O'Dowd again failed. He also failed a second time when Saunders had a hologram hidden in his pocket [3]. The program's moderator went out of his way to be kind, but the tests results are clear:

Marketing Strategies

The marketing is pure genius. If I were a professional scam artist, I don't think I could come up with anything better. The company has an impressive trick demonstration that easily fools most people. They spout a lot of pseudoscientific hooey that sounds impressive to the scientifically illiterate, but they are careful to make only vague claims that the Federal Trade Commission can't object to. The harmless products are inexpensive to manufacture, but the company charges enough to afford a money-back guarantee and still make money. They package the cheaper cards and stickers in multiples so they can charge more, but the prices are still low enough that the average person is willing to take a chance. Who knows what is actually in the products? If it were my scam, I'd put in any old hologram or none at all. No one is likely to investigate your production line to see how you get all those "beneficial frequencies" into the Mylar.

In August 2010, Power Balance added another clever dimension to its marketing—a "partnership" with the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund to raise money for ovarian cancer research. On August 23, 2010, OCRF Web site stated:

Ovarian Cancer Research Fund is teaming up with Power Balance, maker of revolutionary Performance Technology wristbands, in an exciting new partnership to raise funds for the cause

OCRF was approached by Power Balance when founders Josh and Troy Rodarmel, whose mother lost her battle with ovarian cancer in 1998, chose to join forces to help fight a disease that has affected them personally. . . .

On August 3, Power Balance celebrated the launch of the on-going partnership in style, with a glittering V.I.P. "All In For The Cure Poker Party" at Drai's nightclub in Hollywood's W Hotel. Power Balance athletes Derrick Rose and Lamar Odom were joined by some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment to raise funds for OCRF.

As part of the launch, Power Balance unveiled two specially designed OCRF wristbands, available at http://ocrf.powerbalance.com. 50 percent of proceeds from every band sold will be donated directly to OCRF.

In addition, beginning August 11, Power Balance will host an online art auction to benefit OCRF. The auction features 30 exclusive signed works of art depicting a selection of athletes, created by local California artist, Brian Bent. The athletes featured include: Drew Brees, Chad Ochocinco, Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso, Derrick Rose, Matthew Stafford, Shaquille O'Neal, Matt Kemp and Lamar Odom. Bids are placed through the Power Balance website, with 100% of proceeds benefiting OCRF [4].

It seems to me that many people will regard this "partnership" as an implied endorsement of the bracelets. On August 23, when Dr. Stephen Barrett phoned OCRF to complain, he was told that the staff sees nothing wrong with accepting the help as long as the device is not marketed with health claims [5]. During the conversation, Barrett noted that the word "revolutionary" in the first paragraph looked like an endorsement to him. Apparently in response to his complaint, the word "revolutionary" was removed and this disclaimer was added to the end of the article.

While OCRF appreciates the support of all of its corporate supporters, any reference to a specific commercial product or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement by OCRF of the product or service or its producer or provider. The views and opinions expressed in any referenced document or on any referenced website do not reflect those of OCRF.

Scientific Test Shows No Benefit

A controlled trial of college athletes has found that wearing a Power Balance bracelet did not enhance their performance. The study, sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), was conducted by John Porcari, Ph.D. and other researchers from the University of Wisconsin. Each athlete completed two trials of four tests: trunk flexibility, balance, strength and vertical jump. For one trial, the subjects wore a Power Balance bracelet ($30), and for the other they wore a placebo ($0.30 rubber bracelet). The order of bracelets worn was completely randomized and double-blinded so that neither the subjects nor the examiners knew which bracelet was being worn for which trial. Analysis of the data showed no significant difference in flexibility, balance, strength, or vertical-jump height between the Power Balance and placebo trials. Curiously, the subjects did better in the second trial than the first, a phenomenon called the "order effect." ACE's report stated:

The improvements in the second trials were attributed to the fact that subjects were either: (1) more warmed up, or (2) habituated to the task. This would explain why the public sales demonstrations of Power Balance and similar performance-jewelry products appear to have beneficial effects on flexibility, balance and strength. But in reality, these sales demonstrations are essentially carnival tricks. By altering the way you apply force to the body, explains Porcari, you can easily change the outcome. "If I'm pushing a certain direction, and then I change the angle of pull or push a little bit, I can get you to lose your balance easily," he says [6].

Government Action

In December 2010, the Australiian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) announced that Power Balance Pty Australia Ltd admitted that there is no credible scientific basis for the claims and therefore no reasonable grounds for making representations about its wristbands being beneficial [7]. To settle ACCC's concerns, the company signed an undertaking [8] in which it promised to:

In May 2011, Power Balance Pty Australia Ltd was placed into receivership (a form of bankruptcy). The company said that negative publcity combined with threats by the ACCC to retailers and athletes who endorsed the product cause had sales to plummit [9]. The video below was one of several media appearances in which the ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel ridiculed Power Balance products.

 

The Bottom Line

Tell me you use the Power Balance card and it makes you feel better, and I can readily believe you. Tell me your performance improves when you carry it, and I will believe you. But that won't convince me that the improvement has anything to do with bioresonating frequencies in the holograms—or even with the cards themselves.

It's like the tooth fairy. Tell me money appears under your pillow, and I will believe you. But that won't convince me that the tooth fairy did it. The tooth fairy phenomenon is easily explained by human psychology and parental behavior. The Power Balance phenomenon is easily explained by suggestion, confirmation bias, the placebo response, and other well-known aspects of human psychology that conspire to persuade people that ineffective things work.

Whether Power Balance bracelets do more good than harm would be difficult to measure. Modern versions of an amulet or rabbit's foot (without harm to rabbits), they can elicit a placebo response, giving people confidence and possibly making them try harder. They are not exorbitantly expensive and even come with a money-back guarantee. On the other hand, for many people they will be a waste of money and, if enough people buy them, it can be argued that the collective amount could certainly be used for a more noble purpose.

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission deserves congratulations for curbing Power Balances's marketing.

References

  1. Barrett S. Q-Ray bracelet marketed with preposterous claims. Quackwatch, Jan 6, 2008.
  2. Barrett S. Applied kinesiology: Phony muscle-testing for "allergies" and "nutrient deficiencies." Quackwatch, March 10, 2009.
  3. Pangallo P. Bracelet claims put to the test. Today Tonight, Dec 22, 2009.
  4. OCRF launches partnership with Power Balance. Ovarian Cancer Research Fund news release, Aug 11, 2010.
  5. Telephone discussion between Dr. Stephen Barrett and OCRF's research director, Aug 23, 2010.
  6. Porcari JP and others. Power Balance or power of persuasion? ACE Web site, March 2011.
  7. Power Balance admits no reasonable basis for wristband claims, consumers offered refunds. ACCC press release, Dec 22, 2010.
  8. Undertaking to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission by Power Balance Australia Pty Ltd. ACN 136 576 997, Dec 22, 2010.
  9. Thompson J. Australian distributor of Power Balance wristbands collapses, owner admits he was "naive." Smart Company news, May 23, 2011.

This article was revised on May 23, 2011.

Links to Recommended Companies