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.

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

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.

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.

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."

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.

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 (www.cursor.org) 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."

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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