Mental Engineering is produced by 
Porcupine Productions
St. Paul, MN

Catherine Reid Day
  Executive Producer

(651) 387-3333

mailto:crday@mentalengineering.com

Mental Engineering
 

 

St. Paul Pioneer Press: Sunday, November 12, 2000
Ad Nauseam
With healthy skepticism, St. Paul's `Mental Engineering' bites the advertising hand that feeds most of TV programming.


BRIAN LAMBERT MEDIA CRITIC

``Mental Engineering'' is the most interesting weekly half-hour of social commentary and criticism on television.'' -- Bill Moyers, host of many TV specials

As advertising professionals will tell you, usually off the record and over drinks, a fundamental reason their craft succeeds more often than not is because so few people are willing to admit the effect it has on them. The average consumers, they'll tell you, think they're way too smart to buy cars, clothes, politicians, beer and perfume just because we see it on TV or in the pages of glossy magazines. John Forde knows better. Maybe we all do. But Forde, a St. Paul resident, is merrily shouting it from 62 public television stations around the United States.

Forde's brainchild, ``Mental Engineering,'' which has just commenced its third season, is a glib, mocking, infectiously irreverent half-hour ripsawing of America's advertising industry. Less than two years ago, Forde and producer Carol Critchley were cranking out episodes of their show for $200 a pop at the St. Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN), St. Paul's unusually hip cable access outlet. Today, 45 episodes later, ``Mental Engineering'' has a production arrangement with TPT, Channel 2 (formerly KTCA), and is carried on stations around the country.

A brainy, toothsome guy with TV-anchor good looks, Forde has the soul of a natural-born anarchist. It's an odd world we live in. There are a lot of very good questions that don't get asked often enough. Forde gets his kicks asking most of them. Years before he got the idea for ``Mental Engineering,'' Forde dressed up as Joe Camel and haunted the Super Bowl at the Metrodome in 1991 with a sign reading, ``I'm Killing Your Children.'' ``And you know what?'' Forde laughs. ``I think every little kid got it, and every adult looked at me like, `What are you doing?' ''

Lately, he has popped up on PBS' ``The Charlie Rose Show'' saying things like, ``We're making a bid for the soul of public television.'' This after a glowing feature in the New York Times, as well as favorable comment from USA Today, ABC's ``World News Tonight,'' Bill Moyers and the Christian Science Monitor. In New York City, ``Mental Engineering'' runs at 12:30 a.m. Thursdays, right after ``Charlie Rose,'' in what WNET director of programming acquisitions Kathy Dobkin likes to call her ``disturbing the peace bloc.'' ``It speaks in a very thoughtful and amusing way,'' says Dobkin, ``about people's behavior and society.''

For the time being, Forde is still running and building ``Mental Engineering'' out of his home in partnership with his wife, Catherine Day, an astute marketing professional in her own right. Day was the senior vice president for planning and development at what used to be American Public Radio (now Public Radio International) and serves as president of Porcupine Productions, ``Mental Engineering's'' parent company. Or, as Forde describes it, ``The sock puppet that'll take a bullet if we're ever sued.''

If you've never seen the show, its appearance is deceptively unthreatening. Like Bill Maher's ``Politically Correct,'' Forde presides over a round table of four guest commentators/wags/pundits/fellow flame-throwers. The mix is usually half ideological wonk, half breezy attack dog. A recent show was weighted a bit more toward the latter. It featured comedians Jeff Cesario and Lizz Winstead, along with very dapper Star Tribune TV columnist Neil Justin and Macalester College communications professor Leola Johnson.

Each half hour allows roughly 5 1/2 minutes to screen four separate TV ads and deconstruct them. Although, frankly, ``deconstruct'' sounds more academic than what actually goes on. When the show works best, Forde and cast are basically tearing the fetid gizzards out of glossy, emotionally manipulative and downright deceptive advertising. That's when it's most fun. And, according to Stephen Schroeder-Davis, coordinator for Gifted Services in the Elk River school district, that's also when ``Mental Engineering'' is most effective.

Schroeder-Davis gave Forde a call a few months ago after reading a glowing piece about the show. He needed someone to come in and talk to his students -- Elk River's best and brightest, arguably -- on the subject of advertising and media literacy. Forde and the show were a hit. The kids got the attitude and the message. To some extent, anyway. Like Forde, Schroeder-Davis sees an appalling gap between the amount of advertising bombarding kids and schools' attempts to deal with the bombardment by teaching media literacy. Among even the smartest kids, says Schroeder-Davis, ``Their reticence to admit they are influenced by ads is amazing. I tell kids over and over, `You're being targeted. You need help.' But they don't want to admit it. Even when they're wearing designer clothes head-to-toe, they still deny they're being influenced by advertising.''

In that vacuum, ``Mental Engineering'' arrives like a tank of pure oxygen. Forde acknowledges that there's a minor internal debate among his public broadcasting carriers over whether the show should skew more ``informative'' (read: serious and wonky) or more ``entertaining'' (unrestrained and irreverent). Schroeder-Davis thinks Forde has it about right as it is. A bigger budget, with a slicker set and the technical wherewithal to freeze-frame, blow-up and slo-mo key moments of ads, would be nice. But in general, and considering that no one else in the greatest consumer colossus the world has ever known is doing anything like this, ``Mental Engineering'' is covering the important stuff. It's making viewers ask long-overdue critical questions about the relentless appeals for their time and money and the effect of it all on their sense of self.

``Frankly,'' says Schroeder-Davis, ``the humor, sarcasm and asides are far more valuable to me than the more academic stuff. Anytime the show veers into psychological lingo, it loses the kids. But the double entendres and sarcasm hold their attention.'' ``They like the insolence,'' says Forde. Schroeder-Davis also teaches an adult media literacy class at St. Mary's College and has become so enthusiastic about ``Mental Engineering'' that he and his wife, Sondra, offered to write study guides for the show.

``Mental Engineering'' continues to inch forward on the edge of one grand dilemma: How do you broadly market (and make a living from) a TV show that exists for the sole purpose of encouraging viewers to be skeptical and cynical about the very stuff -- advertising -- that puts filets on the plates of every programmer and executive at every station in the country, commercial and public? Forde emphasizes that for the moment, anyway, ``We don't have anything to do with PBS.'' The show is produced in TPT's St. Paul studios but distributed via a company called Continental Broadcast Marketing. A formal distribution arrangement with PBS would come at a cost. ``They'd probably put a lot of restrictions on us,'' says Forde, referring to PBS' cozy, vital associations with giant, conglomerate underwriters such as Exxon-Mobil, General Motors and the like. Some PBS executive would have a lot of sweaty-palmed explaining to do the next time Forde and his crew of pirates gleefully ransack General Motors' latest, preposterous, environment-loving SUV underwriting ID.

``But we know we can make money off this,'' says Forde. ``When we started, we bet the life savings there was an audience for this kind of show,'' he continues. ``We just didn't know who it was.'' Now, he says, sounding every bit like a hardened TV sales manager, ``We can point to the fact we are delivering eyeballs.'' He believes teachers, like Schroeder-Davis, are a key demographic for ``Mental Engineering.'' Teachers see adolescent behavior up close and personal every day. They know the power of FUBU and Phat Farm and the GAP advertising on students and are looking for some kind of device to squeeze in a cautionary, critical thought. A private investor-underwriter stepped up with a check last year. It was enough to put ``Mental Engineering'' back into production at TPT. But the hunt for more permanent funding goes on. Even if ABC never knocks on Forde's door, with sponsorship from Archer Daniels Midland and Pfizer, he's confident ``there are organizations out there with deep enough pockets who get what we're doing.'' Besides, ``We'll never go commercial,'' Forde says defiantly. There's an element of bravado there. But how many other shows -- even on public television -- dare even to make the promise?


Media writer Brian Lambert can be reached at blambert@pioneerpress.com

Host - johnforde@mentalengineering.com
Producer - Producer@MentalEngineering.com

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Last modified: October 28, 2003