Takes one to know one

The academic ad critics on Mental Engineering commit every sin they castigate marketers for.

Marketing Magazine, May 8, 2000   

You’ve probably never seen a television show called Mental Engineering.


The people who make the program will tell you that’s because its incisive critiques of advertising frighten its targets, so most PBS affiliates won’t carry it. I’ll tell you that you aren’t missing much. If you don’t believe me, go to www.mentalengineering.com and marvel at the special mix of cluelessness and pointlessness on display.


Thinking your television show is a threat is probably particularly comforting if almost nobody can see it; you can congratulate yourself for being so goldarned brave and noble and all. That’ll help you overlook the fact your show commits every sin it castigates advertising for and then some: it promises but doesn’t deliver; addresses issues and “needs” that don’t exist; presents the world in a deliberately skewed way that leaves no room for dissent; and does all that in a clumsy, unsubtle, annoying, intelligence-insulting way. As Pee-Wee Herman said, “Takes one to know one.”


The program rolls an advertising spot, then has four otherwise-unemployable academics chew it over with host John Forde. It repeats this four times per show. It’s bad television, unless you enjoy being stuck at a faculty whine-and-cheese circle. Its sorriness is particularly surprising — and dismaying — because it comes out of KTCA, the PBS affiliate in Saint Paul, Minn. This is the same city that gave us a finely honed and unbeatable means of critiquing popular culture, Mystery Science Theater 3000. The Satellite of Love and the work of its crew — first on a tiny UHFer, then on the cable channel Comedy Central, and finally on the SciFi channel — were sharp, incisive, cheap and funny. Mental Engineering is predictable, flat and dull in ways you can barely imagine.


The show’s hype makes much of host Forde’s affection for Noam Chomsky. There’s your first clue it’s going to suck. I have never read any Chomsky, because people who advocate reading Chomsky are depressingly similar: perpetual graduate students or left-wing cranks who believe he was put on earth to produce special pleading for their paranoid delusions. Chomsky is really just Ayn Rand in drag. Both their acolytes believe nefarious elites have nothing better to do than devise sneaky ways to mentally enslave the proletariat. The only real difference is that Randians want to do the enslaving and Chomskyites want to throw off their yoke. Both equally screwy views are predicated on the same chimera.


Consider instead the warning of another — older — political philosopher: John Stuart Mill worried about the tyranny of a dull majority. He couldn’t have known the dullards would be split about equally between Randians and Chomskyites. Either argument is basically: “You’re a dumb-ass, but that’ll change when I reveal the truth to you.” Most times a would-be messiah offers to reveal the truth, you can pretty much count on being lied to early and often.


Maybe that’s what’s at the root of Mental Engineering’s irksomeness, once you get past its hopelessly out-of-touch academics, their pop-culture ignorance, deeply irrelevant semiotic simpering and half-baked Marcusian mumbo-jumbo. The argument for the show’s existence seems to be: “All those TV commercials we see must be doing something to us. It’s probably bad.” Apparently academics are so colossally credulous that when a product doesn’t match its advertising, they don’t learn from the experience. They also seem never to have thought that maybe all but the best ads only divert our attention momentarily before vanishing without a trace.


The other problem with Forde’s chosen co-conspirators is that they all agree that advertising is evil. Crummy, mendacious, lame and inane? Sure, but not effective enough to be evil.


One recent show found the assembled wizards examining a commercial for a basketball Web site called HoopsTV.com. There was a lot of yawp about “eating the other,” whatever that means. As near as I could tell, George Carlin made the same point in about 8,000 fewer words about 25 years ago: white adolescent males all want to be black. Lou Reed said the same thing. Carlin got laughs; Reed wrote a song. Mental Engineering did neither, and its bumptious big-brained bloviators seemed to think they were the first people to whom such a notion had ever occurred.


The program’s preaching to the choir from such a narrow ideological plank that it’s useless to anybody but other academics even more out of touch than its participants. Why not get some people from the ad biz to answer questions about their work, or at least say, “Know what? We never thought — even once — about the inherent obligations of the proletariat under the strictures of post-modern bourgeois proto-capitalism when we made that spot.”


The saddest part of this is that the show Mental Engineering would like to be — or thinks it is — ought to exist. But this is such a wasted opportunity, done so badly, that anybody eager to make good on its promise will be curtly shunned: “We tried that a couple of years ago. Remember a show called Mental Engineering? Exactly — nobody does.”