Snake Oil In the Cage – And Other MMA Gimmicks

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

A small rubber bracelet with a hologram sticker can enhance your performance in the gym, in life, and in competition. It boosts power and agility, making it a critical training asset for every athlete. Or so say the marketers of Power Balance Performance Technology®, who promise a broad range of performance-improving characteristics through their product line of $29.99 wristbands.

NBA All-Stars and NFL Super Bowl MVPs have publicly endorsed these bracelets. But after a commanding presence at the UFC Fan Expo in years past, Power Balance was notably absent at this summer’s expo. Carl Sagan popularized the rule that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” so let’s dig deeper into Power Balance’s magic.

Part of the sales pitch is that Power Balance taps into invisible energy fields flowing through all living things. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Obi Wan Kenobi offered the exact same explanation for “The Force” to Luke Skywalker in the movie Star Wars. This should make this pitch ridiculous to everyone except aspiring Jedi Knights, but it gets worse.

The company’s explanation for how an invisible, undetectable, and immeasurable force can possibly be real and affect human athletic performance is that the technology is based on the same principles behind acupuncture and Feng Shui. This particular lapse in logic is called the “Argument From Antiquity.” Just because a practice or idea is old, doesn’t mean there’s evidence to support it. Ancient superstitions come in all flavors, but only a sucker assumes that tradition equates to efficacy (see also: human sacrifice).

And those examples of corroboration should sound fishy for another reason. The claims of acupuncture and Feng Shui are both modern residuals of superstitious attempts to explain how the world and the human body work. The existence of an energy field called “Qi” sounded like a reasonable explanation before modern physics, chemistry, and biology, but it never holds up under close inspection. While rearranging your furniture to be in balance with the universe may sound like harmless fun, acupuncture has been proven to be an expensive and occasionally dangerous placebo effect. And the placebo effect is the real Power Balance conduit.

Magic jewelry aficionados may believe that they feel different just because they think they’re supposed to. But our human tendency to conform to expectations and even self-delude are not evidence for technological claims. The placebo effect is strong, and also predictably and clearly limited. “Ionic” bracelets don’t have a power source or any other design characteristics that would enable them to impact human physiology in any meaningful way. It literally can’t do anything other than sit there. Any perceived effect is just in our heads.

Snake oil cure-alls of the 19th century have been pushed aside by modern science and improving pharmacology. But when it comes to unquantifiable “performance enhancement,” the 21st century has resurrected the smooth talking salesmen of yesteryear. They’ve replaced exotic herbs and animal products with technical jargon that fraudulently insinuates cutting-edge innovations. The marketing bells, whistles, and even parlor tricks are all the same. In the case of Power Balance, an in-person demonstration at sports expositions can be quite a production. But it’s just a trick.

Demonstrations are always the same: a salesman pulls your arm at various angles with and without a bracelet, and you’ll feel stronger with the product. But note how sometimes the salesmen will pull your arm down but also slightly out to the side, as opposed to straight down and inward. That subtle difference is all it takes to pull you off balance or make you feel suddenly stronger. It’s just physics and biomechanics, not bracelets. But without knowing the trick, the show can be impressive. It’s also easily debunked via simply controlled experiments.

At the 2010 UFC Fan Expo, Power Balance made a concerted effort to capture the MMA market demographic with UFC-branded products. But executives within Zuffa pushed back, suggesting their products were bunk, and UFC-branded bracelets never made it to market. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the more influential NBA or MLB.
But just because Power Balance is no longer an official sponsor of UFC fighters, that hasn’t stopped other new-age scam artists from pursuing the MMA audience. This year’s UFC Fan Expo featured a booth selling $60 “Quantum Necklaces” that make similar claims. Their necklaces allegedly vibrate at special frequencies (not true) that instantly interact with your blood (not even possible) to align your aura (which doesn’t exist) to “enhance strength and balance” (sound familiar?). Like energy bracelets, the phrase “a sucker born every minute” should be painted in invisible homeopathic ink on the lining.

Because jewelry can’t be worn during MMA competition, the quantum necklace salesmen created oil that can be applied to the skin to replicate the benefits. Just a drop of oil is all it takes to go from Average Joe to MMA Champ in seconds, and the salesmen confided that many UFC fighters and trainers were “interested in the product.” Modern day scam artists have brought us full circle back to the days of magical snake oil.
As for Power Balance, despite lawsuits and admission of their false claims, they’re still allowed to sell their product in the United States. It’s harder down in Australia, where proactive citizens applied pressure, and Power Balance was forced to admit to fraud and issue a public apology for lying. But they’re laughing all the way to the bank. All in all, they grossed nearly $100 million in sales just by selling toy stickers that do nothing at all.

Remember, there’s a large marketplace out there chasing your hard-earned dollar, and it’s okay to be skeptical. Critical thinking and a little bit of science are all you need to keep you from colorfully showcasing your gullibility and getting ripped off by an expensive, not-so-magical bracelet.

Scam, Bam, Thank You, Ma’am
Here’s how to spot sports scams before they steal your dollars. If a company can’t answer “Yes” to all these questions, they don’t deserve your time or money.

- Is there a plausible cause and effect for the product and its claims?

- Are the claims reasonable, clearly defined, and easily measured?

- Do they use accepted performance measurements, avoiding scam jargon like “ionic, quantum, and energy fields?”

- Does the product emphasize research published in established scientific literature with numerous, corroborating studies, rather than rely on celebrity endorsements?

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