“The benefits of running barefoot have long been supported by scientific research.”
“Get in shape without setting foot in a gym.”
“Training without shoes allows you to run faster and farther with fewer injuries.”
Do any of the above statements sound familiar? They should, because huge footwear manufacturers spent millions promoting their special shoe as an amazing product that would magically provide the above benefits/meet the above claims. Unfortunately for them, the Federal Trade Commission disagrees.
As recently as last month, a class action lawsuit against shoemaker Vibram USA, creator of FiveFingers running shoes, was settled to the tune of $3.75 million. You may have come across this odd looking line of shoes sometime in the last few years; it features glove-like coverings for toes and, at the time of launch, promised a healthy and improved running experience. Some seventy million Americans purchased a pair in hopes of fewer injuries, stronger muscles and better posture—and not just from Vibram, but from competing shoe companies marketing their own version of a more “natural” running shoe. Vibram settled the lawsuit and will provide refunds to anyone who had previously purchased a pair of the minimalist shoes.
Vibram USA isn’t the only company to face the FTC over products benefits that may or may not have been true. In 2013, Skechers had to pay out a $40 million settlement for false claims around its Shape-Up shoe line. Turned out one couldn’t really get in shape solely by putting on a new pair of shoes. While Skechers still sells the shoe line on its website, it has added the following statement in the description: “Decreases in weight or body fat and increases in muscle strength or toning have not been clinically shown.”
The footwear companies’ missteps (sorry, couldn’t resist) sheds light on truth in advertising and misleading consumers with false claims. It has been known to happen at corporations across industries, but is there a lesson here for small business owners as well? We think so. It’s crucial to be honest with your customers—both existing and potential—about what your product can and can’t do. You may not expect the FTC or FDA to question your advertising as a small business, but as your reach and profits increase, so does the scrutiny.
Take a second look next time you read a product claim or company tagline you like; does it seem like it’s saying something without saying much at all? That’s probably intentional as the marketing copy has been written with a legal eye. And for any business owner looking to grow, it’s a vital skill to pick up.