After This Commercial Break

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

Though Forde never shies away from putting across his convictions (major drug-producing corporations are "pharmotraficantes," he quips on one episode), the host never forgets how much entertainment contributes to the mix. "I have one little spore of information I want to plant," he says, "but I would not be good in a didactic format. Connections and taxonomies are possible, but you can't do that and make it fun. The formula should be about 80 percent giddiness, 15 percent righteousness, and five percent vulnerability."

Opinions vary on this topic. Local media critic and Cursor ( co-producer Rob Levine, who has been a guest on the show, worries that the presence of comics can distract from what could be incisive analysis. Sometimes, too, their presence induces Forde and his guests to aim for easy laugh lines rather than reaching for less comic political considerations. "It's in danger of flirting too much with entertainment, trying a bit too hard to be funny," Levine says.

Forde tries to navigate between these poles, arguing that his program features no shortage of "firebrand political bits," supporting the noble saw that "speaking truth to power is a civic duty," and that Americans need to remember the importance of shared responsibility for their world every bit as much as the "personal responsibility" that conservatives trumpet. But he can't come right out with such opinions, believing that to do so would eliminate four-fifths of his viewers. Television, he argues, lends itself better to stealth liberalism: Let the ideas "sink in ten molecules at a time and have [the viewer] suddenly realize two years later, 'Hey, wait a minute!'" Sometimes, in fact, humor is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. "There are consumer items that can take the place of a sexual relationship with a man," comedian Tim Mitchell protests, apropos of a Diet Coke ad. "But I don't like to think that I'm in competition with a cola for women's sexual attention."

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 majority of media-saturated Americans probably have a viewpoint not found on what might be called the great taste...less filling continuum of media analysis: They largely discount the purported powers of advertising altogether. This is the position of Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield, who takes advertisers' spots to task every week, and is arguably the most important critic within the industry. Garfield argues that "advertising tends to be overanalyzed by people not looking at it as a business proposition. They assume it uses all these techniques of semiotics, mind control, and psychology--which ad agencies didn't have in mind at all. What they're not doing is sitting around thinking how to manipulate people."

Yet no one disagrees with the notion that most Americans could benefit from some schooling in media literacy. In this vein, Levine calls Mental Engineering a "breakthrough show." High schools in Connecticut use tapes of the program in their media-literacy classes. And the penetration of advertising into every stratum of society--from urinals to school classrooms--will only add urgency to this mission. Even Bob Garfield turns passionate when he ruminates on campaign spots. "People accept as an article of faith that advertisers manipulate them," he says. "But political advertisers are very good at it. I would love it if Mental Engineering devoted all sorts of time to letting people know how manipulative political ads are."

That capacity to inspire dreams points to Mental Engineering's best long-term prospects. Kristin Tillotson hopes for Michael Moore-style attack interviews. "It would be great if you could get somebody in charge of some irresponsible ad to admit it: 'Yes, that's what we were after.' Like trying to convince 14-year-old girls that they're ugly and need this product." Among Forde's goals are settling on a stable of panelists: his old friend Chris Vigliaturo (who works in Silicon Valley); two local female commentators; and a guest spot, which he imagines going to figures like Molly Ivins and Mario Cuomo. Celebrity guests would seem to push the show toward the yelling and posturing that Forde says he detests, but he sounds confident in his ability to maintain a different tone. "Media literacy is one genre that can't sell out," he says firmly.

That claim aside, it's hard to see how Forde can get far without selling out, how he can stave off the financial and cultural pressures that would crop him into another talking head. Nor is it clear that such a fate would entirely appall him: In conversation Forde alternates missionary enthusiasm with a very pragmatic sense of what the market will bear.

Mental Engineering may well get smarter as it digs into what the hidden persuaders make us want; it may become famous as a haven for brainy comedic riffs on contemporary culture. But can the show have it both ways? If John Forde does make himself heard without compromising his ideals, he'll pull off a trick gadflies as smart as H.L. Mencken and Joan Didion, Groucho Marx and Dennis Miller, haven't always managed--sticking your head in the lion's mouth of the mass media and keeping it there without getting eaten alive.

Correction published 7/20/1999:
Because of a reporting error, comedian Tim Mitchell was incorrectly identified in "After This Commercial Break." The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.

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