Magazine article The American Prospect

Ad Creep

Magazine article The American Prospect

Ad Creep

Article excerpt

AN UPSTART TV SHOW, MENTAL ENGINEERING, EXPLORES THE EFFECT OF COMMERCIALS ON AMERICAN LIFE. NO ONE IS SPONSORING IT.

It is quite rare to find ad criticism anywhere near the medium of television, except in such criticism's natural habitat, the suburban basement TV room, where stoned teenagers have &constructed Coke campaigns for generations. Sure, Dick Clark includes zany outtakes from commercials on his TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes shows, ABC's Best Commercials You've Never Seen (And Some You Have) won its time slot back in February, and in October, FOX offered a second installment of its Banned in America: The World's Sexiest Commercials. But aside from these occasional, oh-those-crazy-kids celebrations of commercial culture's undeniable capacity to provide laughs and raunch and raunchy laughs, television gives next to no attention to the ubiquitous spots that make it run. There are all sorts of copyright problems, for one thing, and perhaps a television executive cannot be expected to risk sustained focus on the endless, desperate pitches that pay the bills--biting the hand that feeds you, and all that.

Recently, though, ad criticism has made it out of the easy chair and onto the screen, available to about a quarter of American televisions, albeit at odd times, with production values only a step or two up from the basement, and on the most marginalized and maligned band of airwaves, public television. The upstart show Mental Engineering, which began on St. Paul Neighborhood Network (public access) in 1997, now airs on the Central Educational Network (CEN) via satellite feed to more than 40 public television stations nationally, including stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. (Public television stations get some, but not all, of their programming from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS); CEN is one of several smaller, poorer suppliers.) The show, on which four panelists and the high-energy host John Forde watch and critique TV commercials, aims to "irreverently discuss the ways in which TV commercials engineer our perceptions, attitudes, and behavior--how commercials attempt to engineer us mentally."

It could easily die. For now, Mental Engineering, which was funded mainly out of the pockets of its host (who is also its executive producer) has run out of money. And Forde has not approached PBS for funding, figuring the network is too allied with the corporate underwriters it has had to court as its government support has dwindled. But whether or not this particular effort survives, Forde suggests it is crucial for nonprofit television to examine "the one issue that commercial networks are afraid to discuss." Fear may not be the operating principle. As James Twitchell--the author of books such as Adcult USA, Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, and the forthcoming Twenty Ads That Shook the World--puts it, "This system is amoral. They would televise cannibalism if they thought there was an audience." Still, there are excellent reasons to become, as Twitchell says,"more self-conscious about something we are generally used to taking intravenously."

However one evaluates it, advertising is undeniably central to American culture, and American advertising to world culture. Advertising in many ways is American culture; you're soaking in it. "The average American kid sees half a million commercials between birth and age 18," says John Forde. "The free market for deception exists, and it's so much bigger than the free market for truth. We're trying to renew civic faith by talking about these things. We're trying to speak truth to and about power." Terrific ambitions, to be sure. Living in a culture of sales-oriented deception can breed cynicism, and the depoliticizing, self-focused seductions of that culture are many; understanding how advertising does its work on you might, just maybe, inspire you to resist it. …

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