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Earlier article
Forde's ad literacy, humor fight against consumer lust

Originally published in Current, Sept. 4, 2000
By Stephanie Lash

If John Forde wasn't hosting Mental Engineering, an up-and-coming public TV program devoted to dissecting commercials and their cultural significance, he could easily have turned to stand-up comedy. He zings one-liners effortlessly and has a toothy grin that more than a few reviewers have likened to Jim Carrey's. It's hard to believe that Forde's done almost everything—driving a school bus, making pizza, earning a master's in psychology—except tour the improv circuit.

That doesn't mean he hasn't strived as an amateur. He brought the show to life on a Minneapolis cable access channel and within a year caught the eye of pubcasters who have helped put the show on public TV stations in six of the top 10 markets.

Forde didn't set out to become a television star. When he finished his work on his master's thesis, Forde was at a birthday party "doing a rant" when a leftish acquaintance suggested he become "the liberal Rush Limbaugh." Suspecting that his studies in psychology would lead him to spending the rest of his life counseling patients for the enrichment of an HMO that he hated, Forde considered turning his interest in advertising into a foray in media.

"I like the idea of radio because I'm not particularly hygiene-oriented," Forde jokes. After serving as a morning drive talk-show sidekick for KSTP-FM—where they told him he was "too weird for radio"—Forde took some cable-access television production classes in Minneapolis and was on the road to producing his own show.

Mental Engineering has its roots in cable access, one of the reasons Forde could get away with what commercial television executives would deem suicide. His weekly roundtable features four guests—psychologists, political scientists, writers, comedians, etc.—who comment on the social significance of TV commercials and deconstruct their messages. With the show's quick pace and Forde's provocative questions, sarcasm is often the rule.

"What happens at the end, just like every other commercial? A hot chick for no reason at all!" snorts comedian Lizz Winstead after watching a New York Life Insurance spot that ends with a model hopping into a futuristic taxi.

"It's an effective commercial, at least until about 90 percent of the way through when I go, 'New York Life—hey, wait a second, isn't that the company that sent some schmo to my house and ate up my entire Thursday night?'" snips screenwriter Jeff Cesario.

The two-year-old show spent its first season on cable access in Minneapolis and its second on Twin Cities PTV and other public stations. Forde said he blew his life's savings in the first two seasons but was able to pay a crew and producer and fuel some strong national publicity. Since then, it has been picked up by 55 PBS stations, including WNET and WGBH, which will begin airing the show this season.

The show's fast pace and biting commentary already have earned it commendations from TV critics and comparisons to Politically Incorrect. Forde says his job is to dis-inhibit the panelists so that they can educate viewers about the methods advertisers use.

"Our goal is to get people to own themselves and not be subject to the voluntary slavery of the consumption cycle, of the lust for an object, the purchasing act and then the emptiness and then more lust," Forde says.

That's not the type of sentiment that typically would attract underwriters, and Forde admits the prospects for corporate backing looked bleak last year. But KTCA saw promise in the show during its cable access days and agreed to help guide Forde through the public television system. Soon he had underwriters, Risdall Linnihan Advertising, Dads and Daughters, and Radio for a Change. Forde says that if the show gets enough viewers by being smart, honest and fun, underwriters will follow.

"It positions, by association, our underwriters as very authentic," Forde says.

Forde says he decided not to seek PBS funding because of the possible complications that could arise on both sides. He is passionate that his show serves the purpose of education and because its subject matter is feasible only on public television.

"I think we're making a bid for the soul of public television," Forde says. "Either it's independent or it's not. If it's not independent, you can't do this show."

Bill Hanley, executive v.p. of content at KTCA, agrees. "I personally think it's a niche we ought to be doing," he says. "What aspect of American life as large as advertising gets as little attention or analysis as advertising?"

Hanley was the one who ushered Forde into the world of public television, upgrading his cable access show and helping him look beyond the Twin Cities for viewers. Now, KTCA provides advice and serves as a production home for the show. KTCA played Mental Engineering at 11 p.m. Sunday nights this summer, earning a .60 rating, which is good for the late hour.

If the show is a turn-off for many advertisers, its frank approach to media literacy was what attracted Lutheran Brotherhood to strike a deal with Forde. The fraternal benefit society and not-for-profit life insurance company hired Forde, whose father was once its president, to take his show on an eight-city tour this fall. Children in grades 6 to 8 will serve as panelists. "Your Money, Your Message" events will be held in Minneapolis; Pleasanton, Calif.; King of Prussia, Pa.; Oak Brook, Ill.; Des Moines; Denver; Garden City, N.Y.; and Houston. The company wants the opportunity to sit down with young teenagers and talk to them about what influences their money decisions. Forde's involvement will bring increased exposure, and income, to the show.

David Rustad, the company's public relations manager, said the program is aimed at Lutheran children and their families and is part of the company's larger mission to link faith with values and finances for everyday living. After a two-and-a-half-hour seminar discussing how teens make their financial decisions, Forde will take the stage to explain the tactics that advertisers use in manipulation, such as repetition, saturation and celebrity spokespersons. Then Forde will tape his panel discussions with the kids for a possible one-hour kids special.

The tour will occupy most of Forde's fall, as public television stations air the 13 shows he taped for seven weeks this spring. He's still on the lookout for more panelists ("I'm looking for mental agility, heart and an instinct for fun," he says) and underwriters. And he's still watching commercials, especially looking for those with a strong subtext that could be featured on the show.

A typical episode of the show features four commercials, each screened and then discussed. Forde ends conversation of each spot with an "exit question" that he fires to the panelists in rocket-fire succession. At the end of the conversation about a New York Life commercial, Forde questions that if New York Life is "the company you keep," as the slogan suggests, what is "the company you give away?"

"New York Death," answers Cesario.

Even though the show does employ humor, Forde points out that the issue of advertising's effect on culture is a serious one. He speaks at length about the psychological underpinnings of each commercial's subtext, noting it is the way marketers can manipulate consumers.

Bob Garfield, the advertising critic for Advertising Age, questions the degree to which that subtext is intentional.

"The degree to which [advertisers] attempt to manipulate us psychologically is almost always overestimated by the public, including these panelists," Garfield said. "I can't help roll my eyes when I see these panelists speculating about the significance of this ad or that ad or its manipulative qualities. The truth is that marketers would love to manipulate us, but they're not very good at it and the kind of power and wizardry that this show seems to impute to the advertising world is, in my experience, preposterous."

Forde insists that consumers people need a better understanding of the advertising that passes before their eyes an average of four hours a day.

"We're hurting ourselves by not educating our people," he says. "Everyone knows that corporations run our government, but most people can't give you an accurate definition of what they are. A corporation is an artificial person. And I'm on a mission to tell people what an artificial person is and how to identify it."

PBS goes for Mental Engineering on Super Bowl Sunday

Originally published in Current, Jan. 28, 2002

Mental Engineering, a public TV series that analyzes and dissects television commercials, will deliver a Super Bowl PBS special examining some of the new ads that millions of Americans watch during Super Bowl XXXVI.

Forde posing with footballPBS has scheduled the half-hour special for its hard-feed Feb. 3 [2002] at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time. Host John Forde was "extremely happy" with a recent carriage report that showed stations covering 85 percent of the country will air it.

"This is the first [series] to start out on cable access and make it to a primetime network broadcast," says Forde. Mental Engineering got its humble start in the late '90s as a Minneapolis cable access show, and later was presented nationally on public TV by KTCA in Twin Cities.

The series has been on hiatus for about a year, but producers have big ambitions for their upcoming special. "Super Commercials: A Mental Engineering Special" will be taped on a new set and will open with new graphics. Producers will choose the best eight ads for panelists to deconstruct.

Guest panelists include Aisha Tyler, host of E!'s Talk Soup; Lizz Winstead, co-creator of Comedy Central's The Daily Show; Chris Bigliaturo, a computer scientist and Mental Engineering regular; and Leola Johnson, a communications professor at Macalester College in St. Paul.

"If the show is a hit, we hope it will become a regular series," says Forde. A search for corporate sponsors is under way.


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