After This Commercial Break

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

Mental Engineering taped its first episode in December 1997 at the St. Paul's Neighborhood Network studios. The 18 episodes in the show's first season, paid for mostly out of family savings, sparked enough national interest to warrant a second, higher-quality season. (Forde was even flown to Washington in July 1998 to take part in a roundtable for CNN Financial News.) Fourteen more shows were produced between November 1998 and March of this year, many of which can now be downloaded in various formats from the show's Web site (www.mentalengineering.com). Currently, the show is on hiatus while Forde tries to raise the funds for a third season, which he hopes to inaugurate in September.

Made available for free to public television stations by the Central Educational Network, Mental Engineering has found its way onto 38 cable-access and public channels around the nation--including KTCA (Channel 2) in Minneapolis, where it's televised every Sunday at 11:00 p.m. It is now available in 22 percent of the nation's homes, including such major markets as Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles--enough to lead its host to predict a future budget that will enable him to draw a salary by the end of the year.

But even this second season, made at a comparatively cheap $3,000 an episode, nearly exhausted Forde's resources. Continuing the program--not to mention making some sorely needed quality upgrades--will require deep-pocketed support. Yet this may well pose a problem; major corporate underwriting seems to be out, and though he aims to go national, Forde doubts that PBS will pick him up. "They're too moribund to recognize us," he charges, asserting that PBS has "forgotten why it exists."

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

Nor are the broadcast forerunners especially cheering. "Attempts to do incisive critiques of advertising on TV always meet with a great deal of resistance," observes veteran media critic James Ledbetter, author of Made Possible By...: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States. Ledbetter recalls that "people went crazy" in the late Sixties when the Ford Foundation-sponsored Public Broadcast Laboratory and Your Dollar's Worth subjected advertisers' claims to public scrutiny and found many of them, unsurprisingly, rather far from the truth. These shows' "anti-ads" took on everything from prescription drugs to "clean" gasoline with wit and bite--"Ralph Nader writing Saturday Night Live skits," in Ledbetter's words. But before long, corporations were pestering the FCC for equal time, station managers were deleting the material, and both series soon went the way of the hippie.

Those unhappy precedents, from a distant period when public broadcasting was, in comparison with today, well funded, courageous, and politically connected, does not augur well. Nor is it particularly easy these days to gain independent purchase on a commercial culture all too quick to co-opt irony and skepticism. Within months of hitting the big time on MTV, anarchic comic Tom Green signed with putatively anarchic diet cola Pepsi One, proving once again that the clearest way to grab slacker cachet for your product these days is to make ads that sneer at yourself.

Indeed, one of Mental Engineering's weak points has been its failure to nail the ironies in commercials with the same kind of cultural savvy employed by ad writers. It would be uncharitable to fault a shoestring operation like Mental Engineering for its scruffy visuals, but the show's monotonous graphics and structure--commercial/critique/commercial/critique--desperately need to be jazzed up before next season. Sometimes the panelists overcomplicate the ads they're examining. Discussing an IBM spot for Lotus Notes, Forde and his guests toss around lofty references to Tiananmen Square but miss the ad's fallacious equation of corporate networking software (which links workstations in large offices) with personal empowerment. At other times, the panelists seem to miss the nuances of a spot's music or voiceover--the locus for many of the contradictions inherent in the ad game. For example, nobody mentions that one Buick ad features Willem Dafoe--portrayer of many junkies--as the voice of reason, a rather strange choice.

Quite often the show skews academic. Its guests aren't at their best with teen-targeted products like video games, and sometimes they can't piece together visuals and music as easily as MTV-schooled viewers a decade or so younger can. (Aware of these lapses, Forde hopes in the future to produce a Mental Engineering offshoot by and for younger viewers, hosted by a 20-year-old, with a panel of 16-year-olds.) Yet the show's same intellectual stiffness can also seem a virtue. Unlike Politically Incorrect, Mental Engineering never sacrifices coherent, respectful dialogue for the sake of titillating showdowns and one-upmanship. Forde sees the show as a haven, a "safe place to brainstorm," and he wants to keep it that way. Thus, no conservative guests for now, though various participants from advertising agencies have dropped by and been treated hospitably.

Most of show's guests aren't well-groomed gladiators of dubious ideologies, and the conversations they have reflect that. On one episode, guests Jeff Gerbino, a Twin Cities comic, and Brian Lambert, television critic for the Pioneer Press, watch a World Wrestling Federation spot and slip subtly from credential-carrying panelists to dads. Throwing up their hands, they ponder the difficulties of contemporary fathering--should they let their sons watch this cartoonish mayhem and if so, how much of it? Compare that open-ended response to the countless "answers" bellowed by hordes of pundits every Sunday morning.

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