Reebok Assvertising Full of Hot Air: Korean Reactions

(Sources: left, right)

“Speed”, as the New York Times recently intoned, is an “obsession” of Koreans. It’s a cliche, like most labels the foreign media applies to them, but it’s one of the few I’d generally agree with.

Another is that they’re hardworking. While they don’t work quite as many hours as foreign observers tend to think, nobody can deny that they’re always prepared to roll their sleeves up when the boss demands it.

Perhaps then, their boss should consider reviving the 1980s custom of having employees doing traditional national gymnastics together (googminchaejo; 국민체조) before the start of work? For when it comes to losing weight by themselves, Koreans’ obsession with speed easily trumps the resolve they have when they’re on the job.

In short, Korea is simply bursting at the seams with ads promising quick fixes.

To be fair though, I haven’t lived outside of Korea for 11 years, so I can’t reliably claim there’s any more of them here than in, say, the US. The one study I’m aware of that did compare diet ads in both countries however, found that US ones tended to promote more active ways of losing weight, whereas Korean ones tended to promote the idea that if one simply ate, drank, applied, or even sat on the advertised product or service, then that perfect body was simply guaranteed.

That isn’t mere hyperbole. Technically neither foods nor medicines, dieting-related products are a little-regulated, legal gray area in Korea, essentially allowing manufacturers to pretty much make up any claims about them that they like.

It is no wonder then, that Koreans consume them in droves. And I can empathize: once a former gym addict concerned with bulking up, ironically now I have a good 10kg to lose. But with two children, I lack the time, energy, and enthusiasm I had for exercising in my twenties. If only I could just drink something like “Fat-Down” instead, or even this beer (well, actually I have started drinking that). Or sit in this special seat all day. Or use this when I shower. Or, indeed, wear shoes that automatically toned my fat ass just by my walking to and from the subway station each day…


Alas, the online Reebok store lists only 5 male versions to 47 female ones, and they’re all a little pricey for me. Perhaps, just like Coke Zero (which has replaced Pepsi in my Black Russians) was so named because men associate the word “diet” with women too much, the disparity is because Reebok felt that men would ultimately reject the idea. And who can blame them? For as just those examples above (and especially these ones) demonstrate, all aimed at women, to say that US advertisements tend to promote active methods of losing weight, Koreans passive ones, is a little simplistic. Instead, it would be much more accurate to say that in both countries, it’s the active methods that get promoted to men, the passive ones to women.

Despite half the population not buying them though, toning shoes are the fastest growing shoe market in Korea at the moment, with ReeTones alone making up half of Reebok’s total sales.

It was with great interest then, that I recently read that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had ordered Reebok to refund 25 million dollars to (gullible) US purchasers of its EasyTone (이지톤) sneakers, finding that its notorious assvertising claims were nothing more than hot air. Would Reebok Korea also be providing refunds? What about other Korean companies offering similar products? Would this be a wake-up call for Korean consumers? What do they think about the news? Read on to find out.

First, from Money Today (머니토다에), taking up from when it starts talking about the effect on Korea:

우리나라에서도 리복은 지난 5월 이지톤 토닝화의 몸매 보정 효과를 대대적으로 홍보하며 판매에 들어갔다. 때문에 업계에서는 공정거래위원회가 어떤 조치를 취할지 주목하고 있다.

In Korea too, there has been an immense marketing drive for EasyTone shoes since May, so the industry has taken a great deal of interest in what measures the FTC would enact.

국내시장에서는 리복 뿐 아니라 뉴발란스, 르까프, 스케쳐스, 휠라, 머렐 등에서 몸매 보정기능을 강조한 토닝화를 시판중이며 시장도 매년 급성장 중이다. 업계 추산에 따르면 국내 신발시장의 전체 규모는 약 4조원. 그중 워킹화와 토닝화 시장 규모는 연간 6000억~7000억원, 브랜드만 총 20여 개다. 매년 40~50%대의 폭발적인 성장세를 보이고 있다.

In the domestic market, it is not just Reebok that sells toning shoes, but also New Balance, Sketchers, Fila, and Merrel, and this market is rapidly growing. According to industry estimates, the size of the entire Korean shoe market is 4 trillion won (US$3.37 billion), of which walking shoes and toning shoes make up 6-7 billion won. More than 20 brands sell them, and each year the market for them has seen explosive growth of 40-50%.

업계 관계자는 “걷기열풍과 함께 워킹화와 토닝화 수요가 2~3년 전부터 급격히 증가하기 시작했다”며 “최근 들어 기능성 운동화는 브랜드별 전체 신발 매출의 70% 이상을 차지할 정도로 잘 나간다”라고 말했다. 그는 이어 “그간 업체들의 광고가 국내 소비자들의 구매의욕을 자극해왔기 때문에 이번 미국 공정위의 조치는 국내시장에도 상당한 영향을 미칠 것”이라고 내다봤다.

An industry insider said “With the new walking craze, the demand for walking and toning shoes started dramatically increasing from 2 to 3 years ago”, and that “these days, sales of  ‘functional shoes’ make up over 70% of the total sales of those companies that sell them”. Accordingly, “because [Korean] shoe advertisements [likewise] stimulate Korean consumers’ desire to purchase them, the FTC’s decision is expected to have a considerable effect [on the Korean market]”.


Next, from the Kyunghyang Shinmun (경향신문):

리복 코리아는 미국에서 문제가 된 광고를 그대로 가져와 쓰지는 않았으나 토닝화의 몸매 보정 효과를 홍보해왔기 때문에 국내 광고도 논란이 일 것으로 예상된다. 리복 코리아는 미스코리아 출신 이하늬씨를 광고모델로 기용하고 “움직이는 것만으로 바디라인이 살아납니다”라는 홍보문구를 내걸며 몸매 보정 효과를 강조해왔다.

While the problematic US advertisements were not used in Korea, as the marketing here has likewise emphasized the toning effects of the shoes, Reebok Korea is expected to come under a lot of criticism. [Specifically], Rebook Korea hired former Miss Korea (2006) Lee Ha-nui to emphasize their [claimed] toning effects, using the catchphrase “Just by moving, you’ll get a bodyline”.

(James – I’m not so sure that the US advertisements weren’t used in Korea. Not only were untranslated versions widely available on the Korean internet from the outset, but many – like the example below – were indeed translated [albeit not literally: “S-line” isn’t English], including the notorious one of a [faceless] women’s breasts griping about all the attention her newly toned buttocks were getting)


국내에서는 2~3년 전부터 걷기 열풍이 불면서 리복, 프로스펙스, 뉴발란스, 르까프, 휠라 등이 기능성 신발을 내놨다. 이 시장은 2005년 500억원에서 지난해 6000억원(삼성경제연구소 추정치)으로 5년 만에 10배 이상 커졌다. 이 가운데 대표적인 기능성 신발이 토닝화다. 토닝화는 올들어 워킹화와 러닝화에 밀리기는 했지만 기능화 시장의 성장을 주도했다.

As a walking craze has developed over the last 2-3 years, a number of companies have started producing functional shoes, including Reebok, Prospecs, New Balance, LeCaf, and Fila. According to estimates by the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI), the market has grown from 50 billion won in 2005 to 600 billion won in 2010, more than a ten-fold increase in only 5 years.

Of these functional shoes, toning shoes are representative [most popular?], their sales still trailing those of walking and running shoes but leading the growth of the functional shoe market.

국내 한 백화점에서 12만9000~16만9000원에 팔리고 있는 리복 이지톤 시리즈는 지난해 리복 매출의 50%를 차지했다. 리복의 과장광고가 미국 당국의 제재를 받았다는 사실이 알려진 뒤 온라인상에서는 “미국에서 허위광고로 거액을 물게 됐다는데 국내에서는 환불을 해주지 않느냐”는 소비자들의 주문이 이어지고 있다. 리복 코리아 측은 국내 광고 중단이나 환불에 대한 공식 입장을 내놓지 않은 채 “아직 내부적으로 대응방안을 논의하는 중”이라고만 밝혔다. 미국의 유명한 기능화인 스케쳐스도 FTC 조사를 받고 있는 것으로 알려졌다.

In Korean department stores, EasyTone sell for between 129,000 and 169,000 won, and last year made up 50% of Reebok’s total sales. Online, Korean consumers have been asking “In America, Reebok had to pay back a lot of money for its false advertising. Will we receive refunds too?”. But as of yet, Reebok Korea has made no official announcement as to whether its Korean advertisements will be suspended, other than to say “We are still formulating a plan on how to deal with this domestically”.

[Meanwhile], in the US the FTC is also investigating the famous functional shoe manufacturer Sketchers.

스케쳐스 국내 판매업체인 LS네트웍스 관계자는 “미국 스케쳐스에 대한 FTC 조사는 아직 진행 중인 것으로 알고 있다”며 “올해부터 본사 차원에서 토닝화보다는 워킹·러닝 겸용화를 주력 상품으로 밀고 있다”고 말했다.

Sketchers are sold in Korea via LS Networks. A person in the industry said they were aware of the FTC investigation, and that “from last year, Sketchers head office has focused its efforts more on combination walking and running shoes than on toning shoes”.

(KBS Report, September 30 2011. Source)

Finally, from blogger tuesbelle:

과장 광고했다는 이유로 한국 돈으로 3백억원을 환불하고 광고를 중단하기로 했다네요.

아래는 CBS 방송입니다. ㅎㅎㅎ괜히 비싼 거였네요……음…

리복은 지금 한국에서도 몸매 보정 효과를 스타를 앞세워 홍보하며 판매에 들어갔기 때문에 공정거래위원회가 소비자 보호를 위해서 미국처럼 어떤  조치를 취할 지 궁금해지네요. 지금 엄청 잘 팔리고 있잖아요.

Because of exaggerated advertisements, Rebook has had to refund 30 billion won in Korean money, and suspend such advertisements for them. Look at the CBS report below [available on the blog], LOL. The expensive price of the shoes was unnecessary. Um…

In Korea too, because Reebok has used stars to wax lyrical about the toning effects of the shoes, I wonder what measures will be taken here. They’ve been selling unbelievably well these days.

사실 리복 뿐인가요?

벌써 여러 브랜드에서 난리가 났죠. 이런 토닝화는 뉴 밸런스 및 스케처스, 아식스,프로스펙스 등 많은 업체에서 생산되고 있으며 켤레당  좀 비싼 편에 속하죠.

Is it just Reebok? No, already many brands are involved in the boom, like New Balance, Sketcher, Asics, Prospecs, and so on. All of their toning shoes are really expensive too, yes?


미국에서 는  FTC 발표에 대해서 뉴 밸런스는 아무 말도 없었고 논평 요청에 응하지 않았지만 스케처스는 지난 8월 미 증권관리위원회(SEC)에 대한 보고에서 FTC가 ‘쉐이크 업’ 등 자사 토닝화 광고를 조사하고 있다고 밝 혔다네요.

과학적 기능이 아주 조금 들어갔다가 뻥튀기고 되어 나온 걸까요?

저도 스케쳐스 이전 버젼이 있는 데요. 꽤 편하거든요. 어떤 효과가 있는 지는 아직도 못느끼고 있지만 ㅎㅎ :)

암튼 과대 광고로 돈 벌 생각만 한 기업주들은 이번에 제대로 사과하셔야 할 듯하네요. 소비자들도 너무 믿으면 안될 것 같아요.

 In America, New Balance made no statement about the FTC’s decision, but Sketchers said that toning shoe advertisements were [already?] under investigation in the August report of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in a shake-up of the industry.

Have the scientific functions of the shoes been completely exaggerated?

I have an old version of Sketchers toning shoes. They’re actually really comfortable. [Although] I haven’t noticed any benefit from them yet… LOL :)

Anyway, if companies make exaggerated claims in ads, only thinking about making money, then they should properly apologize. And consumers shouldn’t be so gullible.


근데,,,민사소송도 진행중이라던데,,,한국도 하려는 분들이 계실 것 같은데,,,,음….

일단 돈 조금 더 벌려다가 기업 이미지 나빠지고 고객들에게 미움 받고 돈도 돌려줘야 할 판이 되어 버렸네요.

토닝화 중에서 리복이랑 아식스가 제일 이쁘던데,,,,,음…..그게 과학의 값이 아니라 스타 광고와 디자인 값이었나봐요. 일반 운동화와 별 차이가 없다면 가격을 더 내려야 할 듯…한국 리복은 여전히 광고하고 온라인 샵 할인판매 하던데요?

By the way, I heard a civil suit is in progress [in America?]. In Korea too, there will be many people planning to do the same…um…

For starters, the shoe companies were making a little more money, but are now getting a bad image and receiving a lot of hatred from consumers, so they have to pay the consumers back.

Out of toning shoes, I think Reebok’s and Asics’ are the prettiest…um…but I guess the high prices were not for anything scientific in them, but their star ads and their design. If there’s no difference with normal exercise shoes though, then their price should be lowered. How on Earth can Reebok Korea still have ads for them and sell them on their online shop?


한국은 어찌 처리 하려나?? 궁금해집니다.

아식스스포츠, 리복, 나이키, 뉴발란스, 푸마, 프로스펙스, 르까프, 스케쳐스 등등 너무 많은 브랜드의 기능화들,,,,

소비자에게 양심을 지키고 있을 지 기대됩니다.

From now on…

What will happen in Korea? I’m curious.

Asics, Reebok, Nike, New Balance, Puma, Prospecs, LeCaf, Sketchers…there’s so many brands selling functional shoes…I look forward to them keeping their conscience towards consumers


환불 보상 TIP: 현재 리복 코리아는 말이 없지만  리복 본사 사이트에 가셔서 구입한 영수증 등의 자료를 영어로 문서화해서

구입을 증명할 경우 보상 받을 수 있다고 합니다. *^_^* 아래 동영상 < sbs 5분 경제 >맨 마지막부분에서 언급합니다.

동영상 03분 50초 정도 맞추세요.

“일단 우리 소비자들도 리복 본사 홈페이지에 들어가면, 인터넷을 통해서 환불 접수를 할 수 있습니다.

다만 영어로 구매를 증명해야하고, 또 번거로운 절차를 밟아야 하는데, 리복 코리아측.

소비자들의 궁금증에 대해서 제품을 판매할 때처럼 적극적으로 책임있는 답변 내놔야 하겠습니다.”

Here’s a tip for getting a refund: at the moment, Reebok Korea hasn’t said anything about it, but if you go the main [English] Reebok site, and convert your proof of purchase documents into English, then you can receive one. *^_^* See the “SBS 5 Minute Economy” news video here [like the last one, stubbornly resisting embedding or recording sorry!] at about 3:50 for more information. As it says:

“First, Korean consumers have to go to the English Reebok site [James – or via the FTC itself here]. From there, they can apply to receive a refund. However, this is a troubling and annoying procedure, as it has to be done entirely in English.

Producers that so aggressively sold such shoes, should be equally proactive and aggressive in fulfilling their responsibilities to consumers”. (end)


As I type this a week after the news first broke, unfortunately both the Korean media and consumers seem relatively aloof, with only a handful of stories about it, and fewer still going beyond simply stating the facts of the US case: those 3 above cover pretty much everything I’ve been able to find about the impact on Korea. While that was disheartening, I do think the FTC’s shake-up of the industry means toning shoes’ days are numbered. And that if manufacturers continue to pretend US rulings didn’t occur, then ultimately Korean consumers will express their displeasure with their wallets.

On the other hand, I also find the blogger’s (and SBS news reporters’) sentiments a little naive: with 2/3rds of EasyTones sold outside of the US (and I’d wager a good many of those in Korea), as explained in The Consumerist here and here, then, ironically, Reebok may be just as concerned about the Korean government’s reaction as it was the FTC’s. In which case, it’s no wonder that Reebok Korea hasn’t even acknowledged the FTC ruling, and I certainly don’t expect them to do even that unless Korean consumers force them!

What do you think will happen next? Anybody have EasyTone shoes (hey, we’ve all bought stupid things!), or know somebody that does?


Korean Gender Reader


1) Reebok capitalizes on and perpetuates cute-sexy-I’m-so-innocent-make-me-squeal stereotype of Asian women

Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t always enjoy seeing attractive women in their underwear. But I can still certainly understand objections to the way in which Reebok appropriated The No Pants Subway Ride in Taiwan last month. Like  commenter Riff complained:

Oh, lovely, thanks, my fellow Asian women, for perpetuating our cute-sexy-I’m-so-innocent-make-me-squeal stereotype, which somehow just gets worse when a whole crowd of you clones take off your pants for an advertisement to capitalize on the sexualization of women in Asia. Great job, girls. Continue being cute.

And Doug:

As usual for East Asia, they’ve taken the wacky and fun American version, and made it aggressively sexual and really creepy.

And Jedd Oliver noted that the original Chinese-language marketing indicated that Reebok was very much taking advantage of the “liberating the lower body” slogan of the unisex, New York-based Improv Everywhere original. Which strongly reminded me of the following point about the way the advertising industry sometimes deals with feminist criticism:

…some advertisers, aware of the objections of the feminist movement to traditional images of women in ads, have incorporated the criticism into their ads, many of which now present an alternative stereotype of the cool, professional, liberated women…Some agencies trying to accommodate new attitudes in their campaigns, often miss the point and equate ‘liberation’ with a type of aggressive sexuality and very unliberated coy sexiness (G. Dyer, Advertising as Communication, 1982, pp. 185-186)

(Sources: left, right)

But to play devil’s advocate, Reebok has already been using such “assvertising” for its EasyTones for a long time, as have other companies with similar products (which as you can see above, includes the obligatory reference to one’s “S-line” in Korean versions). So, while I remain dismayed that, yet again, something that uses false advertising to encourage women not to exercise has become so popular, arguably this campaign is just a flesh and blood version of what people have already been seeing on subway trains for years.

What do you think? (via SeoulPodcast)

2) Newest phenomenon in South Korean prostitution: hug rooms

Ho-bba, jeong-bba, d-bba (all forms of host bars) yesterday, and now this. Frankly, it’s becoming difficult to keep track of all the ways brothel-owners easily circumvent Korea’s asinine prostitution laws.

3) KoreAm interviews Lisa Lee, founder of Thick Dumpling Skin, “the new community website focused on Asian Americans, eating disorders and body image”

4) “Not all population trends are bad in Korea”

Or are they? While I’d like to report on good news if and whenever possible, I’m not sure that the recent revelation that the Korean “sandwich generation” – those financially responsible for both children and parents – isn’t as big as expected is quite enough to compensate for Korea’s coming demographic crunch. As, indeed, the World Street Journal tacitly admits in its conclusion to its own report:

After 2016, though, things start to get really, really rough for South Korea. That’s when the working-age population starts to fall. Then, the number of people saving and paying taxes and contributing to the asset base will start to decline while the number of people drawing from the asset base will start to rise.

5) Former president Kim Young-sam invited to kophino center in Philippines

Hopefully he will actually go, thereby drawing some much needed attention to the plight of fatherless Korean-Filipino children there.

As Robert Neff mentions, as of last year Koreans have replaced Americans as the biggest group of foreigners to visit the Philippines. And a 2009 Korea Times article also explains that the rise in numbers of Kophinos is:

…a product of the mindset of Koreans who were visiting the Philippines to enjoy life but not to get married to Filipino women. Enjoying life, of course, means hitting strip bars, paying for sex and getting temporary Filipina girlfriends.

They never think of marrying Filipino women and just enjoy their lives here, she said.

But, for some Filipino women, they consider relationships with foreigners as their ticket out of poverty. Unfortunately, this often turns out to be wishful thinking as Korean men quickly abandon the women after a night of sex or when they learn they are pregnant.

Son explained that the Korean cultural history of disapproving of mixed marriages has been a factor in the abandoning of Filipino children.

6) Japanese trains equipped with anti-groping cameras

7) Sex eduction in the spotlight

While it’s slightly old, this December 2009 JoongAng Daily article provides an excellent summary of the dismal state of sex education in Korea, and which unfortunately is probably little different today. The caption to the picture on the right, for instance, mentions that “most of the nation’s practical sex education programs are only available outside the classroom”, and later the article discusses how progressive teachers’ efforts are frequently thwarted by parents’ complaints that showing students how to use the pill or put on condoms correctly, say, simply encourages them to be promiscuous.


8) Life at a Korean University

Strictly speaking, not a gender issue, but of course a knowledge of Korean university life is essential for understanding Korean 20-somethings. See here for a handy quick guide by The Three Wise Monkeys then, with 1 bad – but many good – anecdotes from the related “MT” (membership training) mentioned by Joe Seoulman here.

Meanwhile, the Hankyoreh reports that, unfortunately, living costs for university students are skyrocketing these days. And, to make things worse, they’re being excessively targeted by Christian evangelicals while on campus!

9) Seoul government extends location-tracing service for elementary school children

Although it’s a little difficult to keep track of all the pilot schemes that preceded this, Hanpolis provides a good summary of them in a September article here. And like that says, already the plan then was to have 75% of the city under the “U-Seoul Children Safety Zone” by 2014.

With one daughter of mine just 2 years from starting school, I’m beginning to take a great interest in this, and am wondering if other cities are going to follow suit. And especially because of the rape of a middle school girl by 4 of her classmates in Busan last month, which occurred just a couple of subway stops from my apartment.

(Sources: left, right)

10) The Jang Ja-yeon Letters

Two years after actress Jang Ja-yeon (장자연) committed suicide over being forced by her management companies to have sex with various entertainment, media, and business executives, the revelation that 50 handwritten letters have emerged in which she names them – 31 in all – has rocked the Korean public. Like the Wall Street Journal explains:

Reaction on Internet forums and micro-blogging site Twitter show that people are seething. An unverified list of the men purportedly identified in the letters has been widely circulated via Twitter, causing concerns that some can be falsely accused.

And the police who originally investigated are under fire for glossing over the case. South Korea’s media, who dropped the story shortly after rumors spread that some of the industry’s leading executives had liaisons with Ms. Jang, is also under scrutiny.

See there and Global Voices for excellent summaries, the latter of which discusses some of those reactions on Twitter in more detail. Also, Omona! They Didn’t has a quick list of some of those names, as well as the International Forensic Science Laboratory’s refutation of claims that the letters were fabricated.

Meanwhile, actress Yoo In-na (유인나), who rose to prominence after her supporting role in the popular drama High Kick Through The Roof (지붕뚫고 하이킥), has alleged that she was sexually harassed by her former entertainment agency CEO. And Asian Correspondent has translated an article that says that according to the National Human Rights Commission (국가인권위원회), “cases of sex discrimination and sexual harassment have increased 25-fold in the past eight years, from 13 cases in 2002 to 336 cases in 2010”.


Korean Sociological Image #25 – Women: Apologize to your Bottoms!


After all, even actress Oh Yoon-ah (오윤아) does. Or at least according to the black text in the advertisement above.

It also proclaims that her buttocks are worthy of being described as part of a “쭉쭉빵빵” figure, so presumably the logic is that she needs the product being advertised to maintain that figure, with apologies to her buttocks for having used different methods previously.

Yet that’s based on the assumption that, in Korea too, it is a legal requirement for endorsers of products to have already used or be using what they’re advertising. But perhaps that would be applying too much logic here:

Compelling viewing for sure. But then Applehip Korea is essentially arguing that sitting on your ass all day is all you need to get “apple hips” (애플힙) like those of the women above, so possibly the aim of the commercial is more to distract you from that non-sequitur?

To be more precise, at least two hours of sitting in the seat a day are necessary according to this Korean “news” article, preferably with three uses of the massage function. See here and here for instructions, and all yours for a mere 338,000 won (US$288)!

Of course, by no means is South Korea the only country in the world where essentially useless exercise equipment is sold, and the seat may well improve one’s posture. But as this Korean source (refreshingly) laments, while Korean women’s interest in their appearance is excessively high, their interest in exercise is very limited. Indeed the entire beauty, diet, and exercise industries here are predicated on a widespread belief that obtaining the perfect body is possible provided one merely buys and passively uses, applies or digests various products.

Lest that sound like exaggeration, see here and here for further examples and links to studies providing empirical evidence. And, unfortunately, because of a loophole in legislation regarding “health-related” products specifically, there is little to prevent Korean advertisers continuing to make such absurd claims of their products.

On a final note, did anyone else find having a guy standing with a sign saying “Women! Apologize to your bottoms!” a little creepy? How about several of them, standing on a street with placards and a shopping cart full of apples?

Update: Not really related — the buttock-dancing in the commercials is not as much of a jump for Korea as it may at first appear — but the commercials instantly reminded of these ones from Reebok that have created so much controversy in the US recently. For those of you unfamiliar with them, see the ensuing discussion here, here, and here.

(For more posts in the Korean Sociological Images series, see here)

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