by the Mitchells

Nice Ink

October 4th, 2005


Neal St. Anthony: Deconstructing advertisements
Neal St. Anthony
Star Tribune
Published October 4, 2005

There’s a noisy new Burger King commercial featuring a heavy-metal band and agitated, muscular dancers with nasty chicken masks promoting BK’s new chicken-fingers product.

“Burger King seems to be going for creepy and confusing,” said Sam Simon, the co-creator of “The Simpsons” and longtime TV writer and critic.

Maybe. But no way am I going in a BK now without earplugs and a Marine rifle squad for protection.

Simon and three other panelists were in St. Paul on Saturday afternoon to critique ads for a taping of “Mental Engineering” — the Twin Cities Public Television show that’s rich in candor, biting humor and insight about television advertising. And it also may be one of the lowest-budget endeavors ever on TV.

The show inaugurated its latest season Saturday on Channel 17 and several dozen other public stations throughout the country. The show, which first aired in 1997, is the entrepreneurial brainchild of host John Forde, who stages the show on a set he built himself. Each episode costs about $300 to produce, including satellite transmission fees. The production staff consists of college interns at St. Paul Neighborhood Network public-access television studios.

TV is a high-buck medium in a consumption-driven economy that has resulted in many Americans believing that introspection in a political candidate is weakness, grease-soaked French fries are better for you than a real potato and new is always better than used or repaired.

Yet TV also can be a valuable source of entertainment, education and enlightenment that spans politics, sports business and social issues.

“TV is the dominant driver of culture and politics in America, and commercials are the prism though which you see how the power dynamic flows,” said Forde, 47, a Minnesota native who has done everything from driving a school bus to hosting a talk-radio show. “But nothing really is said to upset advertisers on mainstream TV. We prove that the First Amendment [of the U.S. Constitution] is real.”

Two-thirds of the U.S. economy is driven by consumer spending, and advertising is the grease that helps to keep capitalism’s wheels turning. That’s not all bad. I still remember one thing from my night-school marketing class a couple of decades ago: A good ad is the best thing for a good product. And a good ad is the worst thing for a bad product.

And if General Mills or General Motors or General Reinsurance tout some product that doesn’t taste good, drive right or pay out properly, you can bet the competition will hit the airwaves with a contra campaign. That’s competition.

As a capitalist endeavor, when it comes to profit from “Mental Engineering,” Forde remains thankful for his wife’s day job.

The program, guest travel and related expenses of less than $10,000 a year are covered by the likes of Simon, who travels to St. Paul a few times a year at his own expense, and a couple of dozen other individuals and a small foundation who throw in a few bucks to $2,500 when Forde passes the hat at fundraisers once or twice a year.

Suffice to say, commercial sponsors have not been lining up at his door. But Forde would like to produce more than 13 shows a year and establish his own budget for marketing.

“We’re looking to get underwriting using the traditional public TV model, but at a [low] price that public TV never comes close to,” he said. “I’ve always believed that since we’re a social program, a good sponsor would be something you put in your mouth, like an independent beer or coffee. Maybe like Summit beer or Dunn Bros. coffee.”

This is not a program that’s going to rival the Pamela Anderson-in-a-bikini sitcom or “The Apprentice,” starring the beloved-to-despised Donald Trump or Martha Stewart.

Grabbing viewer attention

“The scarcest resource in the world is human attention,” Forde said. “And somehow we grab it with some people, according to what people tell me and the fan mail. People say there’s nothing like this.”

It’s true that “Mental Engineering” doesn’t play to huge audiences on Channel 17 on Saturday nights. But it’s also true that the “Mental Engineering” Super Bowl commercial special of January 2002 was carried by nearly 50 public TV stations and, anecdotally, was one of the more popular programs seen that evening.

With a panel that included the witty Lizz Winstead, a creator of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, and “Talk Soup” host Aisha Tyler, the panelists tore into an ad for Levi’s that showed slim women pulling down their jeans, a dark-side commercial for Quiznos submarine sandwiches that featured a customer getting zapped in the neck with a dart from a blow gun. In short, viewers of “Mental Engineering” get some pretty witty insights into what Burger King, American Express, Jimmy Dean sausage, Holiday Inn, Viagra, Cialis, Snickers, Toyota and Lamasil are trying to communicate in 60 seconds.

“That stuff can’t be much good if they have to advertise it like that,” my penny-pinching Dad used to say about the commercials between scenes of “Gunsmoke” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

The old sergeant knew little about Madison Avenue’s hidden persuaders. But he sure knew how to throw a wet blanket on spending a buck. Unless the ads were about Camels or Ford LTDs — his preferred brands.

Is “Mental Engineering” a heavy-duty, super-analytical show?

No, but it’s fun and insightful to hear lawyer and Miami TV legal affairs analyst Katy Phang try to figure out why the young, beautiful woman on the Tylenol ad “has headaches all the time” on top of stomachaches.

“It must be the weight of her hair,” Phang concluded.

“It doesn’t really push Tylenol, so it must be an attack on aspirin,” added Simon.

“This would be the best commercial in the world if the camera rotated behind her head and there was a woodpecker banging away at it,” writer/comedian Tim Mitchell volunteered to a barrage of laughter.

Bizarre, or perfect?

In response to a commercial by author and poet Maya Angelou for cable TV and parents using discretion in what they let kids see, the youthful Phang said: “Maya who? … As if anybody would know who she is.”

Winstead called the commercial “bizarre” — that an artist would advocate control of the airwaves.

But Simon, co-creator of “The Simpsons,” noted that Angelou, not associated with commercial TV and not well known to the masses, was the perfect choice for an industry that fears a crackdown by regulators and legislators worried about what kids can dial up round-the-clock.

“It’s against censorship,” Simon said. “The companies that own cable TV hired somebody who’s respected to influence the intelligentsia who can affect legislation. They hired somebody who will not do [other] endorsements.”

Neal St. Anthony can be reached at 612-673-7144 or