What are widely (among my friend groups) considered the world’s ugliest shoes were sold with an assumption that we are all familiar with from the paleo, gluten free and now barefoot running trends?

Early man had it right, and all this technology is just getting in our way. With very little science supporting these movements – largely driven by their dedicated fans who share the value proposition – you will be healthier and more injury-free if you adopt these.

Vibram or the “five finger” shoe was marketed under a movement started by Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run,” where he – in a quest to determine why he is constantly getting injured – looks to a group of Indians in Mexico who can run vast distances without shoes or sandals.

McDougall’s general thesis is that running barefoot is the key to staying uninjured, and that virtually anyone can run marathon distances or more. Many who have read his book believe the only thing between them and ultra-running success are shoes. Thus, it’s no surprise that the book’s publication marks the beginning of a significant trend in barefoot running.

The recent Vibram settlement, like its marketing, has not been scientifically vetted. However, there are studies that establish a rate of injury increase and others that establish a decrease for runners using the shoes. What is important to remember is that when determining whether or not the advertising is misleading, our courts look at consumer intent as a measurement of corporate guilt.

The best example of this intent model of verdict are the recent cases surrounding consumers and misrepresentation in the booming yogurt industry. Chobani and Fage currently face lawsuits over their sugar content and represented “Greekness.” While it is looking unlikely this will go to trial, it is important to look at why it came up in the first place.

A recent case was dismissed in California because prosecutors were unable to demonstrate consumers were purchasing under that assumption. That’s right – the misrepresentation came down not to what was actually said or marketed, but how consumers understood it.

When I look at all the fanatics I know, one particular movement looks very similar in nature to the Vibram one: CrossFit. I can’t escape the constant reminders that my peers see fitness as a competitive sport and consistently, against the advice of many scientists and health experts, execute complex and strenuous activities in a timed fashion. They are often counseled to push past pain by their coaches – missing critical warning signs.

I know there are many responsible trainers out there utilizing these methods, and I am not intending to cast aspersions. However, what I’ve seen is a consumer understanding that these exercises are “safe” and these trainers are “experts.”  Even the founder of CrossFit openly acknowledges “it can kill you.”

Ultimately, whether a person or a corporation is legally culpable enough to go to trial is not based on what you say, but what people hear. It’s more than likely in cases like Vibram and Greek yogurt that consumers are not hearing it from the brands or marketers anymore. They are probably hearing it, as I am sure we all are, from our peers over dinner tables; coffee; gluten-free, free-range meals; and in our social feeds.

With potential new consumers and existing product fans increasingly connecting with one another, it is important to see word of mouth marketing not only as part of your discovery and sales funnel, but also as a critical part of your liability model. Engaging with consumers directly and controlling your message are the best ways to ensure consumer intent is aligned with reality, while limiting your exposure to misrepresentation due to well-meaning fan(atic)s.

Rachel Ullstrom
Account Director, Social Technologies

Originally posted at WOMMA.org