A delicate balance

Associated Press

Associated Press

Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant is one of a wide range of athletes who have been spotted with Power Balance bracelets. View full image

In retrospect, a backlash was probably inevitable. Visibility leads to scrutiny, which can be tough for a company that has never adequately explained how its products work.

In the early days, Power Balance used to make expansive and specific claims, but they weren't easy to understand. Josh and Troy launched a website in 2007, powerbalance.net, to explain and sell their products (which were then only hologram stickers, not wristbands). The website's ocean of white text against a charcoal background was a murky blend of Eastern philosophy and Western science: "POWER / BALANCETM is revolutionary holographic technology designed to resonate with your body's Bio-field, creating a state of coherency and harmonic balance." The site eventually incorporated detailed sections on quantum holography, cymatics (a means of making sound waves visible), and the (discredited) field of radionics, among many other disciplines. From an FAQ section:

POWER / BALANCETM produces all the physiological benefits it does through a proprietary advanced technology QVC, whereby specific "energies" are isolated and light encoded into an aluminum-silicon-based medium. This 'medium,' the POWER / BALANCETM, emits a pure resonance that harmonizes with the body's "subtle energy" fields, producing an instant, sustained, substantial, measurable, and demonstrable increase in the physiological factors of balance, strength, coordination, flexibility, and endurance as well as a distinct balancing of the left and right brain hemispheres.

(The old website has been replaced; these quotes are from the archived copy at the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.)

Yale physics lecturer Stephen Irons was "a little appalled" after surveying the old website, he says. "It's a collection of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo that at worst makes no sense at all and at best makes claims that are completely untestable." The site makes a few references to peer-reviewed journal articles, Irons notes, but the articles are tangential to its health claims—"the concepts of quantum teleportation and those other esoteric fields don't enter into human biology."

"From a science standpoint," he says, "it's basically a pretty piece of jewelry."

It's unclear whether prospective customers ever bothered to read the material on the old website. More important was the Rodarmels' chief sales pitch: the series of tests—similar to the ones Josh performed on me in 2007—demonstrating the hologram's effect on strength, balance, and flexibility. But John Porcari, a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, conducted a study last fall using the same tests, evaluating Power Balance bracelets against 30-cent placebo bands. The subjects uniformly performed better on the second test, regardless of which band they were wearing. Speaking on ESPN in October, Porcari said the subject tends to be warmed up for the second test, and also knows what's coming. "Does the Power Balance bracelet work? No, it doesn't. The placebo effect works," he said. "To me, it's just an absolute scam."

Porcari wasn't alone. Others set out to debunk the Power Balance claims, and the situation boiled over at the end of last year in Australia, where the Australian Medical Association prompted investigation with its statement that the claims were "biologically impossible." In December, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, a consumer watchdog, found Power Balance in violation of advertising laws. The company agreed to issue a corrective advertisement admitting that "there is no credible scientific evidence" to support its claims that the wristbands improve strength, balance, and flexibility. (Asked about the incident, Power Balance noted that "no proceeding has ever been instituted in any country … concerning the product's performance.")

Since then, Power Balance has dialed down its claims, excising large sections of its website—including videos of the tests meant to demonstrate physical benefits—and removing the words "performance technology" from the wristbands. The new website doesn't try to explain what the product does. The closest it comes is: "The company was created out of the principle that the founders wanted everyone, no matter what their level of activity, to maximize their potential and live life to the fullest." And there are no promises: "While we have received testimonials and responses from around the world about how Power BalanceTM has helped people, there is no assurance it can work for everyone."

Trying to find out how Power Balance works, and how the brothers came up with the idea, is a frustrating exercise. During interviews for this article, Josh spoke freely with me on other subjects, but he would discuss the product's origins and technology only by e-mail and in consultation with his lawyers. He did explain that, in 2006, his brother was interested in the physical benefits of a certain type of frequency-based technology. Troy had a business selling computer memory at the time, and Josh says his brother discovered that Mylar—the polyester film used in anti-static bags for shipping memory components—could unlock this technology's benefits for humans. Mylar "is the same material [the Power Balance] holograms are made of," Josh e-mailed. "Thus, the reason we use holograms in our products. Our holograms are just the medium that deliver the technology; it is itself, not the technology or the product."

On the other hand, when I asked Josh about the claims on the old website, he e-mailed a statement that reads, in part, "Our original product utilizes frequency-treated holograms, which was intended to mimic the way certain natural elements positively react with the human body."

In January, customers in the United States filed a class-action suit seeking more than $5 million in damages from the Rodarmels, Power Balance president Keith Kato, and endorsers O'Neal and Odom. The suit is one of at least ten filed in the United States. Regarding the litigation, Power Balance sent me the following statement:

The mission of Power Balance has always been to develop and deliver quality products that enhance people's lives. Our products are based on the idea of optimizing the body's natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many holistic and Eastern philosophies. We definitely understand that there will always be critics of new concepts and technologies, but our products are used by those with open minds who experience real results. Our company is absolutely committed to further evaluating the technology behind its products' performance so that we can continue to offer products that enrich people's lifestyle. To date, our products have lived and thrived in the ultimate testing environment—the real world.

Claims of improved strength, balance, and flexibility are now left to the athlete testimonials, of which there is no shortage. Washington Nationals pitcher Collin Balester, who wears necklaces by Power Balance (and by Phiten, a competitor) to improve his balance on the mound, bristles at the skeptics. "I don't really care what people think," he says. "I just do things that are going to give me the edge, even if I have to wear a dunce cap on my head to make me balance better." Still, Balester told me his decision is a combination of empirical experience and superstition. When he was called up to the majors in late August, he forgot his Power Balance necklace, so a teammate let him borrow one. Balester was nearly unhittable the rest of the year. "It probably had nothing to do with the necklace," he says, "but I'm definitely going to go into next season with that same one."

Nate Jackson, who spent six seasons in the NFL and has written about his experience for the New York Times and Slate,has seen this sort of thing before. "The success of that kind of product depends on an athlete who thinks deeper than the average athlete but wouldn't overanalyze it," he says. "You don't want the athlete that digs too deep and realizes it isn't a panacea."