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Reality, Sport

Mlungu Muti

by Andy Davis / 10.11.2010

There’s a new grift in the world of pro surfing. Scratch that, there’s a new grift in the world at large. Power Balance. Yes I’m talking about that phony little silicone bangle you’re wearing with the “magic” hologram inside. You see them all over the place right now. They’re particularly prevalent in the surfing world but you’ll also find them adorning the wrists of tri-athletes, basketball players, American football stars, MMA fighters and your average smattering of business execs, gym bunnies, advertising shlumpfs and thousands of other gullible schuksters looking for a quick fix. The good people at Power Balance – and several of the spin off competitors – yes a grift this good births hundreds of imitators – are onto a good thing. A product that costs little more than R5 bucks to make, mass produced in China, is being sold for R495 smackeroos. But how does it work?

Power Balance is described as “a performance technology using holograms embedded with frequencies that react positively with the body’s natural energy field to improve balance, strength and flexibility.”

Sounds pretty amazing right? Just by putting on a little rubber band with a mylar (the same shiny stuff your teabags come wrapped in) holographic image imbedded in it, and all of sudden you’re a leaner, meaner more focussed version of yourself. Instantly. No need for years of yoga, kung-fu or pilates. No need for discipline, focus and self control.

When you slip on this magic rubber bracelet, it’s supposed to attune your body’s energy field and make you instantly more powerful and balanced. No need to ask penetrative questions about how it works, no need to understand the science behind the product, put one on and feel better, more grounded, alert, balanced, powerful. Try it. Under the heading of “How Does Power Balance Work” on the website it says:
“Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.”

But it never gets deeper than that. I mean how does a hologram, something that is almost entirely electrically inert manage to tune your body’s energy field? I asked photographer adventure sports photographer Craig Kolesky how it worked and he said there was a metal wire inside that affects your electro-magnetic field. I took my Power Balance and cut it in half with scissors. There’s nothing inside. It’s just a mylar hologram. In an interview with basketball magazine Slam, the founder of Power Balance Josh Rodarmel tries to explain how it all came about, and how it works.

“We put frequencies in the holograms that react positively with your body’s energy field. The same way that wireless internet or cell phones or radio waves or different things like that—everything has a frequency and everything reacts with other frequencies. The frequencies I just mentioned react negatively with your body, but there are also frequencies that react positively with your body. We figured out how to put those in the hologram so when it comes into contact with your body, it gives you that added balance, strength, flexibility. We can demonstrate that through the different muscle tests. That’s more on the sports side. Our testimonials say it helps athletes with their stamina and they recover faster, things like that. The cool thing about this product and what makes it viral is the personal experience that everybody has. It differs. The experience that I have might be different from the one you have or anyone else has.”

What they’re talking about here, but cannot mention for fear of disappearing the illusion and watching their sales plummet, is the placebo effect. Until such time as Power Balance, and other purveyors of magic rubber bracelets, prove scientifically how their products work beyond the hokum of esoteric crystal frequencies, energy fields and auras, I’m gonna write this one down to a stone cold grift based on the placebo effect, the gullibility of humans, peer pressure and our innate desire for a quick fix.

Our minds are incredible things. Belief is powerful medicine. The placebo effect is a measurable, observable, or felt improvement in health or behavior not attributable to a medication or invasive treatment that has been administered.

In most Power Balance testimonials they ask you to take the test with and without a Power Balance bracelet and “see for yourself” the instant benefits. Basically they test your balance and flexibility first with nothing, then secondly with the Power Balance bracelet on. Strangely enough the first time you twist or balance, you can go only so far. The second time you do it, with the Power Balance on, you can go further, hold your balance for longer. What they never do is ask you to test yourself with the Power Balance bracelet first, and then take it off and see a visible reduction in your balance and flexibility. Because the way this test works is through the placebo. The first time you try it, you’re stiff, you haven’t thought about it, your body has not moved in that direction, and most importantly, you haven’t dwelled on the subliminal messages of “power” and “balance” encapsulated in the produce. Then the snake oil salesman slips a Power Balance bangle on your wrist, physically affirming that you are now more balanced and powerful and all of a sudden you can twist further, balance longer. Placebo baby.

But they don’t expect you to interrogate the product this deeply because the next thing that rolls out of the Power Balance circus tent is testimonials from athletes like basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal, baseball hero Scott Kazmir, Formula 1 racing car driver Rubens Barrichello. Hell even World Champion Surfer Andy Irons used to endorse them. This is all about building trust in their product. Don’t explain how it really works, but roll out a steady stream of trustworthy testimonials from mega-star sportsmen. Athletes whose athletic prowess and skill has taken them right to the top of their games. And you immediately associate Power Balance with that success. Endorsement. All of a sudden the balding and slightly overweight business man is believing. He feels lighter, more focussed, more confident. He reaches into his pocket and whips out his credit card. He never wants to take the thing off. I mean it works for Rubens Barrichello and Shaq… I’m on a winner!

And now the grift has arrived in South Africa, Sharks rugby player Rory Kockott, surfers Nikita Robb and Dylan Lightfoot and BMXer Lunga Mkhize all endorse the product. And Power Balance is no longer the only brand. There’s the cheaper fong kong knock-off Pro Balance and there’s the newly released Zentrom bracelet – which has a slightly slicker branding and boasts the all star testimonials of pro surfers Ace Buchan, Marlon Lipke and aging Snowboard hero Terje Haakonsen. Think of the profit margins on a bracelet that costs R5 to make max, (including transport and marketing) and sells for R500. No wonder there are so many companies clamoring to get into the business.

But those in the placebo bracelet game are smart. They hand them out to pro surfers and other athletes, activators and influencers who don’t really need to buy into concept because they get them for free, and, hey why not. Maybe it works. It’s easy to override skepticism when the product is free but could have untold benefits. And thus the viral onslaught continues. Hell, I even have one of those stickers on my one surfboard, because it ws given to me by Hawaiian pro surfer Jamie Sterling, and why not, maybe they do work after all… It’s an insidious kind of thinking that has everything to do with superstition and nothing to do with logic.

Recently Power Balance sponsored the Border Surf Team for the SA champs, Avuyile Ndamase, one of the surfers who got given a free neoprene Power Balance bracelet. I asked him how that “mlungu muti” was working for him.
“Nah this muti is not strong.” He laughed. “I don’t feel a thing.” He said and then pointed towards the Monster Energy truck. “But that muti, that stuff is strong! I can’t even finish one bottle without getting the shakes.”

But really, every time I see someone wearing a Power Balance bracelet, it’s like a bracelet saying: Yip I’m a sucker. And in South Africa, advertising that kind of thing is like a flashing neon light for con artists, pointing you out as an easy target.

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