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A sharp-eyed TV show picks apart TV ads

Minneapolis - The average child may see 500,000 commercials by adulthood. And while the content of TV shows may be discussed in a family setting, how many parents either ignore the hard sell or comment cursorily - this one is funny, that one is boring?

One man has taken it upon himself to really discuss what TV ads are telling us, and he's doing it on TV - albeit on commercial-free PBS (check local listings). John Forde wants viewers to think about what and how they are being sold.

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Mr. Forde brings on a panel of experts to his weekly series "Mental Engineering" - social psychologists, media critics, sociologists, and others; screens a commercial (four in each half-hour program); and the panel discusses the content: Who is the commercial meant to appeal to? What is it saying about the people it is trying to reach? What emotion does it play on? Is it successful? What are the aesthetics behind the image choices? These and other questions aim at stimulating viewers to ask how we are manipulated by the barrage of advertising messages.

One thing TV ads tend to do, he says, is fragment society. "About a third of all ads are aimed at affiliation needs - what group are we part of?" In one series of ads, we see a number of exquisite young people dressed casually in similar clothes, posed in cool stances, each singing part of a hip-sounding pop tune. "This is the type of person you are," the ad says - and so you buy these clothes.

"The need to be free and the need to belong are both very powerful drives. And one result of the affiliation ads," Forde says, "is the shift to 'narrow casting.' We know people are more likely to buy from people who look like themselves, and I think they've become less tolerant because of it.... We don't see ourselves as part of a larger community."

He says he's always been fascinated by commercials. It occurred to him as a child to wonder how commercials could lie and get away with it. "There is a lesson in every one," he says. "They are about how power uses psychology."

Ads never tell bald-faced lies, he says. They're puffery. In order for them to work, viewers have to participate in the deception. Power speaks, you listen.

"We have a core audience of cognoscenti who know that if you don't watch TV, you don't know what America's all about. We're trying to ask fresh questions" about what people are seeing on TV.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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