FTC Makes Skechers Pay for Being So Sketchy about Shape-Ups Shoe Line

Let’s begin by saying, yes, this story is disconcerting on every level. It makes us lose faith in brands, public relations, the law, celebrities, marketing experts and regular human beings in general. No one looks good in this PR and legal debacle—well, scam. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Skechers is in trouble with the law and the public because it pursued an aggressive campaign—leveraging shiny celebrities and bogus claims—promising that the brand’s Shape-Up line of shoes helped people lose weight and trim their figures (especially their bottoms). People bought into the hype; so much so, in fact, that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is issuing 509,175 refund checks to customers who purchased the shoes. Skechers paid a $40 million settlement.

The public loves its free-market economy and capitalism. But people feel Skechers has crossed a line in this instance. We know buying a pair of shoes endorsed by LeBron James does not make anyone play basketball at his level. But kids can dream and the marketing message is largely aspirational. LeBron James is a supremely talented, rich and famous basketball phenom—and a marketing juggernaut.

Kim Kardashian, on the other hand, has no discernible talent other than being Kim Kardashian—which, let’s admit, she’s very good at: The celebrity-obsessed public paid for her sham wedding (to a basketball star!), after all. But reality TV stars often aren’t even good at reality. So for the public to believe in the shell game of reality TV stars endorsing anything other than themselves is just disappointing for the professionals who make a living at selling quality products.

Now it is up to us—the public and PR pros—to ascertain exactly where the line was crossed that compelled the FTC to become involved. Is this a conspiracy of shameful lies or just a regular corporate marketing strategy targeting a public willing to believe that this miraculous pair of shoes could accomplish what no other shoe has been able to do before in the history of the human existence?

It’s heartening to see the FTC holding manipulative brands accountable. But the public needs to consider its own role in this too. Where do you think the responsibility lies?