The other day, my wife brought home from the health-food store a brochure advertising something called a “Wave Shield.” The headline on it reads, “Finally, cellular protection.” They’re not talking about body cells, but cell phones and cordless phones. Even before wireless consumer products hit the market, scientists were studying the question of whether the low-level radio-frequency electromagnetic emissions from cell phones and similar wireless devices could cause bodily harm. While this is no place to review the vast literature on the subject, I have read summaries and am qualified to express an opinion, because electromagnetics is my professional specialty. The best I can tell from the decades of research is that, if there is any deleterious effect of cell-phone use in terms of causing brain cancer or other serious health problems, it is a very small effect and probably insignificant compared to most other elective hazards of daily life, such as using cell phones while driving.
However, there have been enough scary news reports over the years to raise at least a suspicion in the public mind that something bad may result from using cell phones and other wireless gizmos. The Wave Shield company of Boca Raton, Florida has decided to cash in on that suspicion. Here is how.
Their advertisements are carefully designed to stay within the letter of the scientific facts. Every statement of possible damage due to wireless-device use is couched in terms of “may” or “could,” not “will.” But their pictures of three-year-olds using cell phones and MRI cross-sections of before-and-after rat brains subjected to RF (the intensity is not stated, but it was probably far in excess of anything a cell phone would radiate) are all designed to inspire fear in the reader.
Once that happens, here comes the solution: a little metal ring with a tiny piece of window-screen-like metal mesh in it. The idea is, you fit this thing around the earpiece of your phone, and it reduces the radiation in the immediate vicinity of the screen, say, half an inch away or so. It does essentially nothing to keep most of the radiation from the phone away from your brain. To their credit, the Wave Shield people admit as much: “The vast majority of electromagnetic radiation emitted by cellular and cordless phones comes from the antenna and parts of the phone other than the ear piece. Wave shield products have no effect on this electromagnetic energy.” But they are counting on the public’s “innumeracy” (inability to make quantitative judgments other than comparing prices), fearfulness, and ignorance of electromagnetic theory to yield them a customer base willing to pay twenty or thirty bucks for a little ring with a screen in it.
The company’s website has testimonials, which I have no reason to believe are not genuine. But here we encounter the placebo effect: the fact that taking even sugar pills that cannot possibly have any objective chemical action on a given malady will nevertheless make a certain percentage of ill people feel better. Nobody in the testimonials says they have been cured of brain cancer, but they cite reduction of headaches and a perception that the phone is cooler as benefits of the Wave Shield. The “cooling” probably results from the space opened up between the head and the phone by the thickness of the ring. You could get the same effect from a piece of cardboard taped to the phone, but it wouldn’t look as good. And the perceived reduction in headaches could be a classic case of the placebo effect in operation.
This campaign is a specific example of a common phenomenon in the advertising of technical products which, if not strictly unethical, certainly takes an arguably unfair advantage of potential customers. It is what I call the “appeal to the lizard brain.” Apparently, psychologists working with advertisers have found that while most people are capable of following logical arguments and making buying decisions based on conscious rational thought, we all have a more primitive part of the brain which we share with lower animals such as lizards. This lizard brain knows nothing of logic, and instead operates on emotionally-based criteria such as fear and a striving for the satisfaction of physical appetites for comfort, food, and sex. The popularity of large SUVs, for example, derives largely from the fact that the lizard brain thinks driving around in a big intimidating car will keep you safer than driving a small, pipsqueak car. This is despite the fact that the better maneuverability of small cars makes them safer, in many cases.
Another way advertisers appeal to the lizard brain is by saying the cautious legal things in words, but showing emotionally charged pictures that contradict the words. Wave Shield shows they have learned this lesson with their photos of innocent children using cell phones and ghastly deteriorated brains designed to make you ask, “Is that happening to my brain?” Makers of drugs that lower cholesterol do the same thing. If you watch an ad for one of those drugs, while you hear the announcer reading the long list of side effects and saying the drug should be supplemented by changes in diet and exercise, the screen shows photos of luscious, fat-heavy pot roasts and bowls of ice cream—all things you are NOT supposed to eat if you’re lowering your cholesterol. The message, of course, is that if you take our drug, you can eat anything you like and not worry about your cholesterol.
Engineers engaged in such enterprises may take the attitude that “hey, all they pay me to do is to make sure the product meets the technical specifications. What marketing does with it is not my problem.” Well, if advertising strays over the line into fraud, it can be your problem. And even if the advertising is technically within the letter of the law—as with Wave Shield’s disclaimer that their product basically doesn’t do squat, but couched in language that most consumers won’t understand or pay attention to—if the overall effect is to sell somebody a thing that doesn’t really do what the lizard brain thinks it will, the spirit of the laws against fraud has been violated.
All the same, there is nothing new about this sort of thing. The best guard against it is an educated public and a profession of engineers who will not tolerate misleading advertising of products they contribute to.
Sources: The Wave Shield company’s website, for those who just can’t stand not to know what it’s like, is www.waveshield.com. An article by Malcolm Gladwell explaining how the lizard-brain approach to marketing SUVs works appeared in The New Yorker on Jan. 12, 2004, and is viewable in part at the website http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_01_12_a_suv.html.