After This Commercial Break

John Forde's scrappy television show talks back to America's advertisers

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

The way he tells it, John Forde has been preparing to jam the media pretty much all his life. At age four he wondered, How come they get to deceive us and no one ever challenges them? At age nine he looked up to kids with enough mouth on them to sass the world. Reaching voting age in 1976, the year of the first post-Watergate presidential election, only solidified his commitment to shake things up. But Forde's public coming-out didn't take place until the 1991 Super Bowl, when he showed up outside the Metrodome with a homemade float featuring youth-targeted icon Joe Camel bragging, "I'm Killing Your Kids!" Children got it instantly, he remembers, but their parents often looked at him in bewilderment.

As the wit and economy of that float suggest, Forde might well have landed directly across the table from where he's put himself. Gifted with an ad man's nose for PR opportunities and a talking head's sense of ambition, Forde wants to make himself a crusader against advertising, a public intellectual who can counter the reign of pitchmen and spokeswomen. And his television creation, Mental Engineering, shot and produced in St. Paul and airing in major markets around the nation, represents a first step in that mission.

Unable to don the corporate garb in any way, shape, or form: Mental Engineering creator and host John Forde
Amanda Herman
Unable to don the corporate garb in any way, shape, or form: Mental Engineering creator and host John Forde

The program is an unabashedly brainy half-hour, with Forde and his four guests riffing on, criticizing, and mocking the best efforts of America's advertising agencies. On one episode alone, University of Minnesota professor Leola Johnson remarks that one spot for birth-control pills "makes me want to go to a nunnery"; Star Tribune columnist Kristin Tillotson compares an IBM ad to Aldous Huxley's dystopian Brave New World; and comic Tim Mitchell makes merciless fun of the meaningless Diet Coke tagline "Live Your Life." "What choice do you have?!" he wonders. "Live your death?" On this and other episodes, terms like Orwellian and Machiavellian are frequently tossed around by people who have actually read the books behind them.

If you were pitching Mental Engineering to advertisers, you'd probably reduce it to high-concept shorthand: Politically Incorrect meets Siskel and Ebert. The show looks and sounds like Bill Maher's late-night verbal wrestling matches: The host and four selected panelists (a few academics, media critics, and a comic) sit around a table with mugs of coffee and watch commercials taped from television, then proceed to tear them up. But there the resemblance ends. Maher confuses attack with philosophical gesture: Whatever it is his guests believe, he's against it. Forde notes that Politically Incorrect "is built on dogma. Our show is built on questions."

The biggest question Forde faces right now is a simple one: Can this show survive? A comic provocateur whose blend of manic intelligence and gangly exuberance suggests a grad-school Jim Carrey (he has "the energy of a spinning top," Tillotson marvels, "even when the camera's off"), Forde suffers no lack of self-assurance. When he discusses his show's future prospects, he sounds confident and quite ready to speak in the weird tongue common to media executives. He aims to make Mental Engineering "appointment viewing," for instance--the kind of show certain demographics will make time to watch. Nor is he so doctrinaire that he would turn down support from a company like Mobil. At the very least, Forde would do some research if they came calling: "I don't know that their heart's in the wrong place," he says.

Despite Forde's single-minded commitment to his project, it took someone else to set him on his current path. Forde spent two decades in the wilderness, earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a master's in counseling psychology, and worked more than ten years driving a bus. He had once considered the advertising business, even, but found himself "unable to don the corporate garb in any way, shape, or form." Then, just as Forde was finishing his master's thesis, he met Paul Wellstone's press secretary, who thought Forde's enthusiastic populist speechifying made him a natural for radio--"a liberal Rush Limbaugh." Within 48 hours, Forde recalls, "my life spun around." He ditched academia and headed for the airwaves.

A four-month internship at KSTP-AM (1500) in the beginning of 1997 resulted in an exit-interview verdict that he was "too weird for radio," but Forde nonetheless went to work reading news for KFAI-FM (90.3/106.7) where he met Carol Critchley, Mental Engineering's producer. The kind of irrepressible talker who can't help offering a theory about everything, Forde spent that summer hypothesizing on how to put his academic training to use. He looked around for a format that would blend his interest in psychology with his mass-media jones, but the brand name Mental Engineering arrived well before the product--or even the medium.

In August, Colin Turner, then the director of development at KFAI, helped convince Forde that TV was the only way to get viewers to think about how adroitly marketers used psychology to manipulate them. Forde's thesis had examined analyses of the mind that claim humans instinctively think in dialogue; television, he reasoned, speaks to us in a monologue. So why not do what comes naturally and talk back? Energized by both Turner's expertise and his own academic work, Forde took two sets of classes in the rudiments of cable-access production, began filming his show, and quit KFAI in February of 1998.

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