Ad Creep

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 deconstructed 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 Neigh borhood 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 Wash ington, 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.

And doing so doesn't have to be flat and sober, either. Mental Engineering, though sometimes awkward and academic, can also be fun and lively in its search for "the truth." Panelists include comedians, professors, writers, psychologists, and advertising professionals. Forde himself is a former bus driver and radio show sidekick with a master's in psychology. On one show, after a Doritos commercial featuring a bunch of college boys opening up umbrellas in the library—a Dorito-chomping woman walking through (to the tune of "Smoke on the Water") has generated such heat that the sprinklers have gone off—a discussion ensues about female power, the association of sex and eating, the tacky visual metaphors of sexual climax, strip-club shower dances. Later, the panelists watch an ad for the Buick Century, in which violin music plays as a car drives through a beautiful redwood forest and a voice asks if "rich people" have more friends than the rest of us and if they are more entitled to comfortable car seats and safe brakes; the commercial ends with the confused-populist tag line "A luxury car for everyone." One panelist, a communications professor named Leola Johnson, points out the combination of class envy and class hatred, and a second, comedian Tim Mitchell, argues that it seems unlikely that people are going to be convinced that Buick is somehow against the rich. "Buy the new Buick Commie Mobile!" he jokes. "Get the new Buick Proletariat!" An ad for Sparkle paper towels warning against the "pathogenic organisms" carried by house guests provokes a discussion of advertisers' tendency to alert you to dangers you'd never considered before—in this case, disease-ridden hand towels—and then offer to sell you their solution. Corporate greed is revealed; light is shone on shady attempts at persuasion. Such exposures and dissections are never bad.

That said, there's something a bit old-fashioned and Frankfurt School-ish in a show like Mental Engineering. The idea of mental engineering by propaganda artists—they're messing with your mind, man—seems, if not exactly wrong, somehow off the mark. No question: Advertising is, in a general sense, propaganda for consumerism and is specifically aimed at influencing consumers' decision making. The premise that Americans are uneducated about advertising and consumer culture, however, and that "media literacy" is what's missing, has a naïve ring to it.

It is instructive, for instance, that one of the appeals of Mental Engineering is the commercials themselves. Sexy or funny or shockingly stupid, made with great care, they're enjoyable. Perhaps that's because commercials are not just about mind control; they are about the shaping of pleasure. "Media literacy would be a lot more effective if advertising worked rationally, which it usually doesn't," argues Carrie McLaren, publisher of the smart, funny, biting zine Stay Free! (named as a "spoof on the maxipads and faux-feminist marketing," and as an anticommercial maxim). "Sane, media-literate, rational adults buy what feels good. You could learn everything there is to know about how De Beers managed to turn diamonds into 'priceless' gems, how it was engineered and calculated to make people think they needed them for getting married, and still reeeallly want one."

Even at the cognitive level, media literacy may do less to build resistance to and autonomy from commercial culture than to increase our engagement with it. Analyzing manipulative advertising activities becomes one of the enjoyable ways of coping with the relentless, cloying presence of commercials. Ads are annoying when they are an interruption, but watching them as culture, taking them apart to look at them, even if it's to hate them, can be quite pleasurable. "We're all media deconstructionists," says Twitchell, a supporter of Mental Engineering who nonetheless criticizes its resemblance to other "big-eyed, drop-jawed, 'We've got to tell people about ads!'" efforts. Indeed, much advertising since the 1980s has insulated itself from criticism by assuming an audience literate in the manipulative languages of advertising, addressing the charge of hucksterism by acknowledging it and turning it into an ironic joke and a you're-so-hip pitch. From the lying car salesman with the what-he's-really-saying subtitles to the kitsch-and-camp Old Navy campaign, many ads have become "ads," self-consciously calling attention to their ad-ness. This suggests an ad-conscious, rather than ad-ignorant, public. It suggests a problem that programming geared toward "media literacy" does not address.

Understanding that advertising is filled with creepy half-truths and lovely false promises does little to guard against the jolly spread of commercials into areas where some of us might like the option of being left alone. Athletes have been walking billboards for quite some time; schools have been selling students' eyeballs to Channel One, in exchange for much-needed equipment, for more than a decade. Go see a movie and you get commercials, just like at home, only this time you pay eight dollars to watch them. Automatic teller machines, according to The New York Times, are the next space to be invaded by video advertisements. Once your ATM card is equipped to carry personal data about you, you'll be "microtargeted" by advertisers based on that information, so that even as you're taking out cash, companies can start making a grab for it. If you're male, you're now likely to be looking at an ad when you use a restaurant or bar urinal. Even if you're not a crank, even if you sometimes quite enjoy commercials, even if you recognize that advertisers are often subsidizing important institutions that governments refuse to support, this relentless spread can make you cranky.

Or angry, like the group of vandals in Soho, who have been hurling blood-red paint at Dockers®, DKNY, and Banana Republic ads in their neighborhood. "Our city is not the pages of a magazine," the attackers said in a statement released by an intermediary. "Advertisers are decimating the city's landscape," and "the people are responding in anger with paint. We hope it gives inspiration to others who want to reclaim our city." (For his part, the president of a billboard management company pointed out that "these signs are a permanent part of the area, legal and an expression of free speech"—not an inaccurate claim, though a scary one in its bland recognition that commercial and political speech have melded into one another, and in its cool confidence that billboards are forever.) It is difficult but necessary to imagine a televised version of that paint-hurling: one that brings to consciousness not so much mental engineering as advertising's tendency to remake in its own image almost everything in its path.

How advertising monopolizes the culture, colonizing public life and public space, is arguably a much more pressing contemporary problem than the widely acknowledged ways it attempts to manage, with decidedly mixed success, attitudes and behaviors. There's next to nowhere in American collective space where ads seem out of place. Perhaps that's the ultimate contribution of a show like Mental Engineering. There's a weird, backwards satisfaction in seeing expensive commercials on a cheap public television show, laid out on the table for dissection on the tiny strip of television that remains out of their reach. They look ridiculously gussied up, suddenly out of place, like mink-coated guests at a backyard cookout. That's a good thing, an important juxtaposition, because it serves as an unintentional, jarring reminder of how taken for granted the presence of advertisements has come to be, on television and pretty much everywhere else.