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FTC Gives Skechers Shape-Ups a Shakedown with $40 Million Fine



Imagine for a second that all corporations are people (and ignore the federal ruling that says that’s the truth). Let’s say all those “people” are in the same bar. What would that be like? All of those “people” would be showering themselves with praises. You’d have a guy bragging about his five doctorates, another guy claiming he could bench 1,000 pounds, a woman claiming she’s the CEO of three companies. You’d hear non-stop superlatives from every person you run into.

Now, that may very well be what your bar experiences are like now. But that’s the point – do you take everything everyone says at your local bar at face value? Probably not, and as the case of Skechers Shape-Ups shows, you shouldn’t when it comes to dealing with businesses, either.

Skechers USA will need to pay a $40 million fine after the Federal Trade Commission ruled that their marketing campaign was deceptive. The FTC has found that Skechers’ claims that their line of toning shoes, including the popular Shape-Ups, would help people with weight loss and muscle toning, while improving cardiovascular health, were based on insufficient scientific evidence.

The shred of scientific evidence Skechers managed to muster in its defense was performed by a chiropractor named Dr. Steven Gautreau. Gautreau claimed that an independent study showed that Skechers’ toning shoes outperformed those of other brands. I don’t know what Gautreau’s definition of independent is, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say most people aren’t going to agree with that statement – Gautreau is married to a Skechers marketing executive, and was paid to conduct the study. Neither fact was disclosed by Skechers prior to the marketing campaign.

There’s a larger shadow cast here than just on the world of toning shoes. There are laws against false advertising, and, because Skechers is now on the hook for $40 million, we know that those laws at least can be effective. The problem is, in order for a company to be caught, someone first needs to call a company on their questionable marketing campaigns. Laws help – they’re helping now – but only if they are enforced, and only if someone works to enforce them.

The FTC is doing the enforcing in this case, but this presents another problem. How did the FTC first start this investigation? Do they routinely investigate all marketing claims? That seems unlikely, if not impossible. Do they rely on customer complaints? If so, what happens if no customers think to complain? The issue is that the consumer at large doesn’t know. We don’t know how these laws come to be enforced and what, if anything, we can do to help enforce them. If consumers are supposed to be a part of the system fighting against false advertising, and we’re not aware of it, what’s stopping spurious claims from becoming the norm? What’s stopping Skechers from simply being the unlucky one that got caught?

Even in the age of the Internet, consumers, more often than not, don’t have the information to adequately protect themselves from corporate deceit. Part of that is because that information isn’t readily available. Some might say the information is all there, and it’s just a matter of effort. That idea, carried out, is unrealistic – we can’t expect ourselves to be one-man or one-woman FTCs. We don’t have the time.

There’s only one thing consumers can reasonably do against the possibility of corporate marketing deceit – stay skeptical of everything you hear in every advertisement. Every time Apple releases a “revolutionary” product, realize that this is Apple saying Apple’s product is awesome. In other words, take it with a grain of salt, because you wouldn’t expect Apple to say anything else, regardless of what the reality of the situation is.

If another company throws some numbers at you (I’m looking at you, megapixels), stop and think about what those numbers mean to you as a consumer, and realize that might be different than what the company wants you to think they mean. If a business, like Skechers, touts scientific evidence, dig around and try to find that scientific evidence. If that evidence is the result of only one study, or if it’s hard to find that evidence at all, those might be some red flags.

You wouldn’t believe the guy at the bar if he told you that he was the greatest bicyclist in the world. At the very least, raise some suspicious eyebrows every time a business makes their marketing boasts.

As far as Skechers go, if you bought a pair of their toning shoes and feel hoodwinked, you could be eligible for a refund through the FTC. Check out the press release below for more information.

Press Release