Building buzz around your product is usually a good thing. But creating a product out of buzz not necessarily so. Vibram USA Inc., a company promoting their FiveFingers minimalist or barefoot running shoes, recently found this out the hard way thanks to some class action lawyers.

Barefoot running has long had its advocates, dating back to at least 1960 when Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian runner, won the Olympic marathon running barefoot (turbo-powered shoes would be my footwear of choice). A recent popular book helped stoke the flames for minimalist shoes.  So perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone tried to commercialize the idea.  Of course, it’s hard to commercialize literally running barefoot so “minimalist shoes,” including a shoe with toes, that were the subject of this case, were designed as the next best thing.

Vibram in its marketing touted numerous health and injury-prevention benefits.  And the shoes were a commercial success.

However, the complaint in the case alleged several difficulties.  First, there were allegedly no studies on the shoes themselves.  Instead, Vibram allegedly largely relied upon anecdotal evidence and inferences as to how running barefoot might be beneficial. 

The complaint criticized Vibram’s reliance on this evidence on several fronts. First, taking their cue from recent FTC actions, the plaintiffs alleged that a proper clinical study was required. Second, the complaint alleged that you can’t make inferences that apply to running barefoot and assume that they apply equally to running in a shoe, however minimalist. Third, there was at least one study and an opinion by a medical association that the benefits were not established and that the shoes could actually promote injuries. Finally, even if the claims were true, the complaint alleges that Vibram failed to properly disclose that consumers would have to change their style of running and that for many consumers this was either impossible or required a very long transition time.

In settling the case the Vibram agreed to provide consumers redress and to only make certain clams if they had competent and reliable scientific evidence.

In short, when it comes to health claims taking the minimalist approach to substantiation is likely to cause rather than prevent consumer injury.