Ah, Great British summer: the sunburn, the lack of air conditioning and the infamous toe shoe. You’ve probably spotted the ghastly clogs before—on the beach, at the pool or, on the rare occasion, in the pub.
While researching for this article—trying to pin down a reason why anyone in their right mind would actually purchase one of these products—I came across a story: a tale that teaches us the importance of keeping it real and why lying can monumentally backfire. But before I go any further, let’s clarify what exactly a toe shoe is.
The definition of a toe shoe is almost as elusive as someone’s motivation in purchasing one. A toe shoe can take many forms, and to be honest, some of them have a legitimate place in this world—like the Pointe shoe, used by ballet dancers when dancing on the tips of toes. In this case, however, I’m referring to the Vibram FiveFingers, a type of shoe with individual toe pockets.
Vibram Fivefingers are a type of minimalist shoe, first developed in 2005, and marketed as a more natural alternative for footwear used during outdoor activities. They’re supposed to replicate being barefoot, having thin and flexible soles designed to contour the shape of the human foot. In other words, they’re a foot condom…
With such a hideous design, you have to ask yourself, why would anyone slide themselves into one of these foot condoms in the first place? The answer is similar to why someone would choose Crocs over literally any other shoe—not for aesthetics but utility. Supposedly, the barefoot-style shoes, which fit snugly between each toe, help cut down on injury and improve running form, as their lack of heel padding promotes forefoot landing.
Back in the mid-to-late 00s, someone on the Vibram marketing team came up with an idea: what if, instead of marketing their product towards a niche group of outdoor activity enthusiasts (looking for extra grip on slippery surfaces), they instead tapped into the multi-million dollar running market? How? By claiming that the cushionless shoe with individual toe pockets is in fact better than other workout shoes for your feet when running.
And just like that, the ‘barefoot’ boom in fitness footwear was up and running, pardon the pun. Major companies such as Nike and Brooks jumped onto the toe shoe bandwagon and soon running toe shoes were dominating a sizable chunk of the market. According to The Washington Post, in 2014 toe shoes made up 10 per cent of the $588 million US running shoe market and had grown by 303 per cent between November 2010 and November 2012, compared with 19 per cent for running shoe sales overall.
But when Vibram’s claims were found to be fabricated, the bubble suddenly burst. The marketing strategy had monumentally backfired. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology investigated the efficiency of forefront-running, asking a group of 37 runners to alternate between forefront and heel-striking running. According to The New York Times, “In the end, this data showed that heel-striking was the more physiologically economical running form, by a considerable margin.”
In 2014, Vibram moved to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by women who claimed that the company deceived consumers when it claimed, without any scientific backup, that its shoes could decrease foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles. The mistake cost the company $3.75 million, offering a reimbursement of $94 to anyone who bought a pair of the infamous toe shoes since 2009.
But don’t worry, like most things in life, there’s a silver lining. If any good has come from this shoe’s existence, it’s the lessons it’s taught us. It’s shown us that lying about your product can bite you in the ass (and wallet). It’s revealed that as a society we are gullible, having the tendency to jump on meaningless bandwagons—without scientific backing—all because of a marketing campaign. It’s also highlighted that brands are more than willing to capitalise on these trends, without a care for the consumer, all for a quick buck. And last but not least, it’s proved your disgusting toe shoes aren’t doing anything but grossing people out.