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Is it Real or Reel?

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The media has always loved a good hoax. Take a look at this classic segment from 1957 when the serious British news program titled Panorama presented a two-and-a-half minute story covering the annual spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. The clip shows workers carefully lifting the noodles from the branches of spaghetti trees while the narrator explains, “The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmer. There’s always the chance of a late frost which, while not entirely ruining the crop, generally impairs the flavour and makes it difficult for him to obtain top prices in world markets.”

After the April 1st 1957 broadcast, the phones at the BBC began ringing with viewers questioning if spaghetti really did grow on trees and how they might be able to accomplish the same feat in their back yards.

In our complex media age, we might laugh at such naivety, but outright hoaxes or—even worse—the bending of truth, are becoming more prevalent than ever. And, as is often the case when speaking about unbridled media, the Internet is the chief source of confusion.

Both adults and children need to carefully consider what is real and what isn’t. Take these two examples of text from reproductive technology websites and see if you can figure out which is the fake:

“Welcome to Genetic Savings and Clone… Thanks to cloning, you don't have to rely on luck to have another pet very much like yours. After six years of research, we've begun the commercial cloning of cats, and we believe we're less than a year away from offering commercial cloning of dogs.”

“Dr. Richard Wells is hailed as one of the true visionaries in the field of fertility, and is widely considered to be the top genetic engineering researcher in the United States. He was one of the first scientists to suggest the positive effects of cloning technology on our planet's food supply and is highly respected in the medical community for his tireless work to better humanity. He is a three time winner of the prestigious Caldwell Award for Science and was a finalist for the Lyndon R. Robertson Prize in Fertility Research in 1989 and again in 1993.”

Did you guess that number one was the fictional entry? If so, you’re about to discover these guys aren’t cloning around. Genetic Savings and Clone is a legitimate real-life company that is planning on offering cloning services for people wanting to recreate their favourite pets. You can check them out at http://savingsandclone.com/.

As for Dr. Wells, you can see his “clinic” at http://www.godsendinstitute.org/. Although his pictures are rather small, you may still notice a definite resemblance to a famous personality that goes by the name of Robert De Niro. That’s because Dr. Wells is De Niro’s character in the movie Godsend, a story about a couple who give cloning a try after their eight-year-old son is killed in a tragic accident.

To promote the movie, Lions Gate Films put together a convincing website, complete with testimonials from “clients,” a bio on Wells, and even a toll free phone number that leads to a polite voice mail telling you to leave a message for Dr. Wells and reminding you that “Evil is born on April 30,” referring to the movie’s tag line and release date.

This isn’t the first time entertainment has bent reality to such an extent. Other examples include the site for Lacuna, Inc., a high-tech company that can erase bad memories from your brain. Sound familiar? Perhaps you saw the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If so, you’ll recognize Dr. Howard Mierzwiak and understand that what you are reading is merely Hollywood-style page filler.

Need a little extra help in the kitchen? Check out http://www.irobotnow.com/index.php and select the perfect robot to ease your aching back. “With over 456 moving parts, three pounds of processing circuitry, two miniature nitrogen cooling tanks, and almost one mile of aluminium wiring, the NS-5 is a mechanical marvel. Its ability to manoeuvre any type of terrain (from sand to concrete), lift weights up to 800 pounds, and even bake a tuna casserole, put its capabilities far beyond those of current robotic technology.”

But before you order, you may want to wait for the “product release date” of July 16 2004. That’s when I, Robot will be releasing in theatres.

These promotions are certainly clever and can hardly be considered malicious. However, their most worthy purpose may be serving as examples for parents and teachers to use when helping young people understand the importance of verifying information. And remember, you should always consider the credentials of the author… even if he does purport to be a doctor.

Is it real? The Museum of Hoaxes is an Internet site devoted to revealing fakes and spoofs in both the virtual and “real” worlds.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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