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Vibram: Minimal shoes, maximal hype

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When it was introduced in 2006, Vibram’s five-toed “minimalist” running shoe was a product that many runners wanted to believe in. Designed to approximate the feel of barefoot running, the FiveFingers shoe tapped into two powerful forces: the yearning for silver-bullet solutions that can turn couch potatoes into Olympians, and the instinct that all-natural is better. So when the company claimed that the glovelike shoe reduced injuries and strengthened muscle, many runners were eager to accept it.

The pesky lack of evidence, however, caught up with Vibram USA last week, when the Concord-based company agreed to a $3.75 million settlement and promised to stop touting unproven health benefits in promoting the shoes. Minimalist shoes may well perform better for some runners, but the plaintiffs accused the company of claims that went well beyond the scientific evidence.

One wonders why Vibram, an affiliate of the Italian multinational, even bothered with such exaggerations. When the barefoot running fad took off a few years ago, fueled by the popular book “Born to Run,” the company already had the perfect storm of hype and hope on its side. Did it ever matter whether there was scientific evidence behind it? Once it became fashionable to believe that back-to-nature running would work wonders, runners would have lined up to try the new shoes — with or without the misleading advertising.

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