“Warning Light”

Regarding the exploitation of paranoia and fear for financial gain, there is no better example than the Radiation Inhalation Preventer & Olfactory Fender (RIPOF). Its story involves a very serious event, the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in 1979. While many saw this disaster as a spur to discuss the important issues of nuclear energy and its dangers, some saw a different opportunity. The RIPOF sellers claimed their product would light up to alert users to the presence of airborne radiation. Worn over the nose, each unit’s round shape would inhibit direct inhalation of radioactive particles. Combined, these features would allow critical time to evacuate.

Marketed at the height of Three Mile Island fear, it may seem surprising that RIPOF sales were best outside that plant’s region of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Perhaps this was due to better local knowledge of radiation issues. RIPOF units sold better in other areas of the United States. Mostly where TV ads were cheap. Many thought the bulbous devices, colored “emergency red,” looked very familiar to other non‑scientific nasal appliances. This was especially true to those who frequented circuses.

Consumer advocates questioned if the RIPOF could be any sort of detector. The only electronics were to the small bulb inside each unit. A wave of outrage against the RIPOF began after many children found their unit’s filed-down switch behind the left elastic strap anchor. When flipped “on” the units started flashing. This sent trusting parents into near cardiac meltdown believing their houses and/or backyards, and of course their children, were radioactive.

The fraud was fully exposed by physicist and part-time children’s entertainer Louis Van Peltiere, PhD. He appeared on national TV in his guise as “Quarkels the Cosmic Jester” wearing a RIPOF while in full makeup. The sight proved RIPOFs were cleverly repackaged toy clown noses. He didn’t need to juggle bowling pins badly in oversized orange shoes and blinking RIPOF/nose to make the point. (He did anyway, ignoring TV host and studio audience protests. His concussion occurred during a sudden commercial break.) The scam was obvious the instant Van Peltiere flicked on his RIPOF. Context is everything, especially when clowns and radioactivity are concerned. Even the most ardent, fallout‑paranoid buyers realized they had been swindled. (However, many across the country kept wearing their RIPOFs even after the expose’ claiming it had always been a fashion accessory, or they were in on the gag from the start.)

The RIPOF marketers, John Clantor and Phyllis Gollan‑Parkowski were prosecuted and forced to give back their ill-gotten money–although, most of it went to government fines and lawyers’ fees. The trail revealed Clantor had failed Clown College as a younger man. Moreover, he had even less success as a wholesale speculator. Gollan‑Parkowski had no such relative history, and, evidently, no sense of ethics. Fear-driven and largely uniformed consumers had once again been exploited. The RIPOF caper stung many like a tight elastic band snapping across the cheek. Such is the circus of free enterprise without conscience or science. As always: Caveat emptor.