Skechers, the go-to brand for cheerleader sneakers, is facing a federal class-action lawsuit over allegedly exaggerating the health benefits of its hot-selling Shape-Ups line and reaping "millions of dollars of profit" through running misleading ads. The company is also the target of two other lawsuits and a study that says the claims, along with those by two other "toning" shoe manufacturers, aren't true.
One promotional video for Shape-Ups, the oddly-shaped sneaker with rounded, rocker-bottom sole, declares that by simply walking in the shoes you can "turn your workout into a part of your everyday life, without ever going to the gym." Another clip, featuring former pro quarterback Joe Montana, exhorts: "Get in shape without setting foot in a gym!"
The suit, filed in federal court in California, accuses Skechers of making false claims about the physiological benefits of wearing Shape-Ups, including weight loss, firmer muscles, reduced cellulite and improved circulation and posture. Based on those claims, the company charged a premium of $100 or more per pair, a price that many consumers readily paid, the complaint states. It also says Shape-Ups increase the likelihood of injury, such as broken ankles, pulled hamstrings and a permanent change of the user's gait. And it quotes a number of scientists vocal against the purported benefits of the shoes and a USA Today report suggesting they may be no more than an "overhyped gimmick."
The study, by the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit fitness organization, draws similar conclusions. The San Diego-based group tested the physiological reactions of 12 healthy women who wore regular fitness shoes and compared them with those of 12 others who wore Shape-Ups, Reebok's EasyTone Reeinspire shoes, and a model by Masai Barefoot Technology, a Swiss brand that pioneered the trend in the '90s. The report found that none of the latter models toned users' muscles or helped them burn calories.
"The messaging around these shoes and the notion that they can tone the body are appealing to the general consumer," Cedric Bryant, chief science officer at the council, told Consumer Ally . "But the toning shoes appear to produce the same results as regular sneakers. We want to educate consumers as to what's reasonable and realistic in terms of exercise and outcomes."
Bryant pointed out that any benefits of wearing Shape-Ups are more likely to come from the fact that they resemble orthopedic shoes and may indeed be good for people with foot abnormalities. "It may not be a stretch to say that one walks more in Shape-Ups because of the comfort factor, and that in and of itself is good."
But Skechers isn't taking the criticisms lying down. The Manhattan Beach company has mounted a massive counterattack to the allegations, saying the ACE's motive for putting out the study is backhanded.
"The American Council on Exercise is in the business of selling goods and services to professional trainers. They want people to go to gyms, so they don't like advertising that says you can get in shape without getting to the gym," a spokesperson told Consumer Ally.
The Shape-Ups line of shoes contains what Skechers describes as a "unique kinetic wedge" that creates instability and forces the user to roll forward in walking and constantly having to rebalance his or her posture. That causes increased muscle activity over standard fitness shoes, by creating an effect similar to that of walking on sand, the company claims.
"When I first heard about the Shape-Ups technology, I wanted to investigate it because it's revolutionary. And anytime there's a revolution, there's skepticism," Leonard Armato, president of Skechers' fitness group, said in an interview. "There have been more than 30 studies to support rocker-bottom technology."
Over several years, Skechers has released four company-commissioned studies that highlight the health benefits of Shape-Ups. In one of them, it says the shoes were developed in response to the "flat, hard and predictable surfaces" consumers live and walk in, which never challenge their balance and stability.
Armato noted that the company has been issued a U.S. utility patent, which "elevates the shoes to state-of-the-art."
"We are absolutely and overwhelmingly confident that we will prevail in this case," he said, referring to the lawsuit.
Skechers Shape-Ups ad claims said to be misleading consumers