Pioneer Press: Sunday, November 12, 2000
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
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
``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
Media writer Brian Lambert can be reached at email@example.com
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