When Pokémon Sent Hundreds of Viewers to the Hospital

Warner Bros. Pictures/Getty Images
Warner Bros. Pictures/Getty Images

By the time the 38th episode of the animated children’s series Pokémon, or Pocket Monsters, aired in Japan, it was a bona fide sensation, drawing roughly 4 million viewers weekly. One survey estimated that 55 percent of schoolchildren in Tokyo's Kawasaki school district followed the series. The show—which began airing April 1, 1997, and focused on the adventures of Ash and affable monsters like Pikachu in their attempt to collect one creature from each species to train for combat—was also a comic, a Nintendo video game, a trading card series, and more. The devoted fandom would soon spread to the United States.

But then something peculiar happened—so peculiar that it become the subject of medical journal research. The Pokémon episode that aired at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 16, 1997 depicted a cataclysmic explosion between thunderbolts thrown by Pikachu and a “vaccine bomb.” Red and blue flashing lights began to pulse onscreen. Though the sequence lasted only a few seconds, hundreds of children were stricken by an immediate and visceral response that ranged from headaches and dizziness to full-blown seizures. Japanese hospitals found themselves treating viewers for epileptic symptoms.

This wave of deleterious effects became international news. Never before had a television program had such a direct and immediate health consequence on its audience. Some people initially dismissed the whole thing as a hoax or possibly some kind of mass hysteria, but the physical reactions were genuine. What had made this episode of Pokémon so dangerous—even among those viewers not diagnosed with epilepsy? And could it happen again?

 

The potential for a television program to trigger seizures is rooted in how it displays light. Light displayed at frequencies between 10 and 30 hertz, or the number of cycles per second, is known to induce symptoms for a percentage of the population susceptible to them. The color red is also stimulating. When light is shifting from color to black and back again, nerve cells in the brain can fire electrical impulses rapidly, leading to convulsions. This is often referred to as photosensitive epilepsy, where certain visual stimuli can cause a seizure.

As a result, there have been a handful of programs that have prompted medical concern for viewers. In 1993, the UK had three reported seizures as a result of a commercial for pot noodles that used flickering light, prompting the advertiser to pull it from the air. A 2012 animation for the Olympics also triggered adverse effects for a reported 18 viewers. People don’t necessarily need to have epilepsy in order to be affected; they might have an undiagnosed condition, remaining symptom-free until viewing such footage. Others might react even in the absence of epilepsy, suffering headaches or other symptoms as a result of being overly sensitive to flickering light.

Mew and Mewtwo are pictured in a scene from 1998's 'Pokémon: The First Movie'
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In Japanese animation, the strobe effect was obviously not intended to cause distress. Animators considered it a technique, which they dubbed paka paka, and which was intended to communicate to the viewer a sequence of high intensity. In “Denno Shenshi Porigon” (“Electric Soldier Porygon”), the Pokémon episode that became infamous, Pikachu’s attempt to free a monster named Porygon from a digital prison results in his being attacked by computer virus missiles. Throwing his thunderbolt attack, he intercepts the missiles and creates a paka paka explosion augmented by another technique known as flash, which accentuates bright and flashing lights. The frames in the sequence were alternating at 12 hertz—well within the window to cause problems.

The scene, which occurred roughly 21 minutes into the episode, is what prompted individuals with photosensitive epilepsy to react. Statistically, it made sense. It’s believed that one in every 4000 people are vulnerable to the condition. With 4 million people watching, 1000 of them could conceivably have been struck with symptoms. A reported 618 people were hospitalized for treatment. Some even wound up in intensive care with breathing problems.

That such a sizable number were in need of attention did not go unnoticed, particularly since it was the result of a children’s show. The story was covered by the late-evening newscasts in Japan, some of which inexplicably decided to air footage of the episode, which provoked more photosensitive reactions. By Wednesday morning, the Pokémon incident was the talk of Japanese schoolyards, with kids being asked if they had been struck down by the cartoon.

 

It took science some time to figure out why this sequence had been so particularly consequential, even among those who weren’t epileptic. As it turned out, the typical living environment in some areas of Japan was partly to blame. In small living rooms often dominated by large television screens, kids were confronted with a towering and flickering image. Some even sat close to the screens, compounding the potentially negative effects of the sequence. Children are also more susceptible to epileptic seizures, and kids were Pokémon's target audience. The length of the sequence, which was roughly six seconds, and its heavy emphasis on the color red may have also played a part.

Hospitals who were sent questionnaires by researchers reported that many of the children treated were not diagnosed with epilepsy, though the incident seemed to precede a diagnosis. One letter to the editor published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2004 stated that of 91 patients evaluated for Pokémon-induced symptoms, 25 had another convulsion within five years. Of 13 patients who were treated and had no history of epilepsy, 10 wound up being diagnosed eventually.

Pikachu (L) and Ash (R) appear in a scene from 1998's 'Pokémon: The First Movie'
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Animators were flummoxed. The paka paka and flash sequences had been used before, though likely not in a program approaching the viewership of Pokémon. Police launched an investigation to make sure Television Tokyo, the broadcast network, was not somehow negligent in airing the program. They weren’t, though the consequence would be the same either way: No one would ever take the risk of airing “Denno Shenshi Porigon” again.

 

The episode was pulled from the series and was never rebroadcast, save for the news clips. The show itself was taken off the air in Japan entirely, not returning until April 1998 and carrying cautionary warnings. (When Pokémon was imported to America in 1999, the episode was predictably left out.) New broadcast standards in Japan were implemented that mandated the color red could not flash more than three times per second, with no more than five flashes per second of any color, and no flash more than two seconds in length.

That wasn’t quite the end of seizure concerns in popular culture. In 2018, some theaters put up signs cautioning viewers that flashing lights in The Incredibles 2 could be a problem for those with photosensitive epilepsy. Disney later reedited the film in the UK so it complied with the Harding Box test, which sets standards on flash and flicker rates for light and can reduce—though never eliminate—the potential for problems. The company is also issuing a warning for the upcoming December 20 release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, stating the film has “several sequences” utilizing flashing lights.

Owing to the relative rarity of these events, it’s likely productions will continue to use flashing images, though producers of Pokémon would probably prefer to forget the 1997 incident ever happened. The episode has never again been cited and the character of Porygon disappeared, save for one fleeting mention in Japan when Hulu kept a preview for the episode at the conclusion of the previous installment. While it doesn’t contain any of the incendiary sequence, it might be the only surviving footage of the day television really was bad for kids.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Dr Pepper's Wild Guns N' Roses Publicity Stunt to Give Everyone in America a Free Soda

rbanbuzz/iStock via Getty Images
rbanbuzz/iStock via Getty Images

At the start of 2008, few people could have predicted a film titled Kung Fu Panda would become the year’s third-highest grossing movie (The Dark Knight was number one); that an Iraqi journalist would throw his shoes at President George Bush (he ducked); or that someone would assemble a world-record setting rubber band ball (it weighed in at 9032 pounds). Nor could they have predicted that lawyers for musician Axl Rose would write an open and sternly worded letter to Dr Pepper, chastising the soft drink company for a public relations campaign the attorneys dubbed a “complete fiasco” and charging them with “reckless indifference or complete stupidity.”

The ire directed toward Dr Pepper, though bizarre, was not without cause. It was the result of a spectacular misstep in marketing—one that started as a joke and quickly became a costly venture for the popular carbonated beverage. In March 2008, Dr Pepper brazenly promised a free soda for every single person in the United States if Axl Rose and his reconfigured band, Guns N’ Roses, finally released their long-awaited Chinese Democracy album by the end of the year.

It seemed like a safe bet. Rose had been working on the record for 14 years. A release was unlikely given Rose’s infamous perfectionism and fractured relationships with his bandmates. In making the claim, Dr Pepper was awash in free publicity.

It doesn’t seem like anyone in the company gave serious consideration to what would happen if Rose decided to end the delay and put the album out. In November, that’s exactly what he did. Suddenly, millions of people wanted what they had been promised: a free Dr Pepper.

 

There was nothing in the history of either Dr Pepper or Guns N’ Roses to suggest their storied histories would ever overlap. The drink was the brainchild of Waco, Texas, pharmacist Charles Alderton, who formulated a 23-ingredient fountain beverage in 1885 and saw its popularity soar thanks to its presence at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. He dubbed it Dr Pepper, though no one really knows why; one persistent rumor is that it was named after the father of a girl Alderton was in love with, but the origin of the name remains open to apocryphal speculation.

Dr Pepper was initially marketed as a health drink, free of the caffeine or cocaine that was present in similar concoctions. Some people used to drink it hot. It was a popular flavor and largely successful, even though it mostly existed in the shadow of the big two soft drink manufacturers, Coke and Pepsi.

Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses is seen performing on stage
Scott Gries, Image Direct/Getty Images

In 1987, right around the time Dr Pepper was preparing to merge with Seven-Up to create a new soft drink conglomerate, a Los Angeles-based band named Guns N’ Roses released their first studio album, Appetite for Destruction. The band had been formed by William Bruce Rose, an Indiana native who came out to the West Coast to pursue a music career and took the stage name of Axl Rose (an anagram for oral sex). With childhood friend Izzy Stradlin, guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Steven Adler, the Rose-led band went on to superstardom, holding the record for the biggest-selling debut album of all time, with 30 million copies sold.

The band followed up that success with a dual-disc album, Use Your Illusion I and II, in 1991. Soon, a variety of problems began to plague the group. Stradlin left. Adler struggled with addiction. Rose was alleged to have taken a hardline stance in the creative process, alienating Slash, who left in 1996. Other members came and went.

Through it all, Rose was preoccupied with Chinese Democracy, an ambitious and experimental record that he worked on with no particular sense of urgency. The band’s label, Geffen Records, sent a line of executives to try and persuade Rose to finish the album. Deadlines came and went. Rumors of the album being all but finished were confirmed when Rose let Rolling Stone writer David Wild listen to nine tracks in 1999. The year came and went, but no record was forthcoming.

Rose’s inability or unwillingness to complete Chinese Democracy became something of a running joke in the music industry, with Rose becoming an increasingly elusive figure. He performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2002, leading to speculation the album was about to be released. It wasn’t. Geffen released a greatest hits compilation in 2004, leading to the same talk, but that record wasn’t even Rose’s idea: It was Geffen's, as they were looking to recoup the exorbitant costs of the delayed album. By 2005, it was estimated Rose had spent $13 million of the label’s money in production costs. Geffen finally cut him off and insisted he pay for any further studio time himself.

 

That was the state of the band when Dr Pepper marketing director Jaxie Alt proposed a bold strategy. It’s not known whether Alt was a Guns N’ Roses fan or simply someone who thought it would be fun to reference the album’s notorious reputation. Either way, Alt and Dr Pepper announced in March 2008 that if Chinese Democracy came out before the end of the year, they would buy everyone in America a free bottle of Dr Pepper.

A can of Dr Pepper sits next to a glass
Andreas Ivarsson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In a release, Alt wrote:

"It took a little patience to perfect Dr Pepper’s special mix of 23 ingredients, which our fans have come to know and love. So we completely understand and empathize with Axl’s quest for perfection—for something more than the average album. We know once it’s released, people will refer to it as 'Dr Pepper for the ears' because it will be such a refreshing blend of rich, bold sounds—an instant classic."

To Dr Pepper, it must have seemed like betting on a coin toss. But instead of opting for heads or tails, they were betting on the coin landing on its edge—probably the same odds of Rose managing to let go of Chinese Democracy after 14 years of work. (The company also mentioned the offer was good for everyone but Slash and Buckethead, presumably owing to their respective departures from the band.)

Rose, however, took the promotion in good humor, releasing a statement clarifying that he and his management had no official deal with the drink but were still “very happy” to have Dr Pepper’s support.

For a time, it seemed as though Dr Pepper’s plan to stir up publicity worked. The story was picked up across several mainstream media outlets as well as Rolling Stone and Billboard. It was a lofty pledge, but few people believed Dr Pepper would ever have to worry about fulfilling their promise.

It’s hard to know when Dr Pepper executives began to grow concerned. It might have been in August 2008, when a blogger named Kevin Cogill was arrested by the FBI for streaming nine tracks from Chinese Democracy on his website, a violation of federal anti-piracy laws. It’s not that it counted as an official release, but Cogill’s source (he didn’t reveal who) must have had their hands on something that was in some stage of preparation for distribution. It’s also possible Rose finally felt the state of music piracy was such that the full album would be leaked without his consent eventually and that he might as well do it himself. Whatever the case, in October, Geffen announced that Chinese Democracy was coming out on November 23.

Axl Rose and DJ Ashba of Guns 'N Roses are seen performing on stage
Adriano Machado, LatinContent/Getty Images

After the requisite fan excitement, people remembered Dr Pepper’s offer and began soliciting the company for comment. Tony Jacobs, the brand’s vice president of marketing, made an announcement: “We never thought this day would come,” he said.

In print, it was hard to know whether Jacobs was excited, worried, or some combination of the two.

 

The logistics of offering a free Dr Pepper to every single person in America was daunting. The U.S. population at the time was 305 million. Clearly, this could not involve giving an unsolicited 20-ounce Dr Pepper to people preemptively. If people wanted a free Dr Pepper, they would have to make their request known.

In a second press release, Dr Pepper explained the details of the offer. People could visit the official Dr Pepper website on November 23, the day of the album’s release as a Best Buy store exclusive, and share their name and address. Within four to six weeks, they would be mailed a coupon good for one 20-ounce bottle of the drink, redeemable at any establishment where Dr Pepper was sold.

Dr Pepper was making good on its offer. But fans felt the method left a lot to be desired. The site would accept registrations for the coupon for just 24 hours. Immediately, people had problems with the page failing to load, crashing, or refusing to save their information. A phone line that had been set up to take requests for the voucher was also tied up. Dr Pepper could not handle the volume of people looking for their free bottle of soda. November 23 was a Sunday, and the company extended the deadline through Monday in an effort to accommodate everyone.

A crumpled-up can of Dr Pepper is pictured
iStock.com/NoDerog

As complaints mounted, Rose’s attorneys took action. In a letter directed at Dr Pepper executives, they lambasted the company for the ill-conceived promotion and alleged it capitalized on the popularity of Guns N’ Roses while simultaneously harming the reputation of the band. They declared the whole idea a “unmitigated disaster which defrauded consumers” and demanded they run apology ads in major newspapers. The stunt, they argued, harmed the release of Chinese Democracy.

Laurie Soriano, an attorney for Rose, said that Rose’s camp had tried to work with Dr Pepper before the album’s release so demand could be met. But, she said, Dr Pepper didn’t want to collaborate. Soriano also told CNN that fans erroneously believed Rose was involved and were holding him partially responsible for the failure. The letter mentioned that the company had never sought out any official tie-in to the record or endorsement from Rose.

It’s not known how many coupons were ultimately redeemed, though site issues, lack of interest in Dr Pepper, or people simply failing to use them probably contributed to a number significantly less than 305 million. Dr Pepper’s brand seemed no worse for the wear, and Chinese Democracy sold a respectable 549,000 copies in its first 12 weeks of release. Despite the claims by Rose's lawyers, it’s unlikely people declined to buy the album out of protest over a soft drink promotion.

Dr Pepper remains a successful brand as part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. Guns N’ Roses reunited in 2016 with original band members Rose, Slash, and McKagan with plans to release a new album, Rose’s first since Chinese Democracy. So far, Dr Pepper has not announced what their plans are, if any, should it ever materialize.

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