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Viral Video Cell-Phone Scare

Featurette

Tracy King

Volume 33.5, September / October 2009

In June 2009 a new urban legend was born—that the power generated by cell phones can cook popcorn. A series of videos on YouTube appeared to show four users popping a table full of corn kernels simply by pointing their ringing phones at them. The implication for the casual observer was clear: if cell phones emit enough radiation to pop corn, imagine what they are doing to your brain!

The execution was new, but the scare was not. The media has been reporting for years on alleged links between cell-phone usage and brain tumors, and alarmist headlines continue to excite the public regardless of the facts. As far back as 2000, spoof videos were being created of eggs being cooked by cell-phone power. The creator of the first of these, electronics expert Charlie Ivermee, created his video to poke fun at media scare stories but was surprised when it was taken seriously. As an early viral, which in those days were mostly circulated by e-mail, it accidentally exploited a powerful stimulus: fear. Despite the creator’s satirical intention, he had underestimated the public’s willingness to demonize new technology and find cancer around every corner.

Fast forward to 2008 when YouTube videos imply that cell phones emit enough radiation to cook popcorn. The viewer is left to assume that it’s true, although a moment’s thought about the temperature needed to pop a kernel of corn—150 degrees Fahrenheit—might give even the average YouTube viewer pause. If your cell phone reached that temperature, you’d very probably notice. It’s not hot enough to melt plastic, but it’s hot enough to burn skin.

So who would benefit from pandering to public concerns about health and cancer? Satirists, certainly, who are then free to expose their mockery of scaremongering. But the brains behind the popcorn video had another motive: profit. Cardo Systems describe themselves as “an established world leader in the field of wireless Bluetooth communications.” In other words, they make the wireless headsets that help you avoid putting your mobile phone to your ear. Useful for hands-free chatting while driving, but perhaps a horrible fiery death in a car wreck wasn’t considered appropriate material for a viral video. The creative team at Cardo who created the popcorn videos exploited existing concerns about cell-phone radiation and made them legend. The “anonymous” videos were viewed nearly 10 million times in just two weeks before Cardo stepped forward to take credit, although not, initially, to debunk the pseudoscience. Cardo claims that traffic to its Web site doubled in the days the videos were active, and although no figures have been supplied to show an increase in headset sales, it would be unusual for such a viral hit to have no commercial impact.

For those wondering, the secret of the video is mundane. Popped kernels were dropped onto the table as the phones rang, and the unpopped kernels were simply edited out. It is a simple trick that any media student could achieve in a few hours, but Cardo created an urban myth so instantly popular it attracted international media and a place of honor at the urban legend Web site Snopes.com.

Cardo seemed unconcerned about potential accusations of scaremongering; at the time it claimed openly that its headsets reduce the amount of RF power going to users’ ears but did not explain why that’s a benefit. The popcorn video viewers may have their own motives for purchasing a headset, but if reducing cancer risk is one of them they should perhaps consider themselves misled.

Tracy King

Tracy King is a skeptical writer and marketing consultant in London, England.