Think You Can Write Better Ads Than Convicted Felons?

Two young copywriters from San Francisco are working with inmates to create speculative advertising through a project called “Concepting with Convicts.”

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Mar 18 2014, 7:30pm

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Ad agencies will often do borderline-criminal things in their effort to sell you a product. For instance, in 1990 a now-infamous Volvo ad purported to show that even a monster truck couldn’t crush their station wagons. Unbeknownst to the consumer, the New York agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves had secretly buttressed the car’s roof so it wouldn’t get squashed under the truck. Or take the time in 1968 when Campbell’s and its agency, BBDO, got pinched for putting clear marbles in bowls to make it look like their vegetable soup had a shitload of vegetables in it.

My point is that ads are not always on the level, and there are occasionally even criminal elements at play. So why not give actual cons a shot at writing some ads? They already have a reputation for thinking outside the box.

Two young copywriters from San Francisco are doing just that through the Federal Bureau of Prisons' pen pal program. Their goal is to collaborate with inmates on creating speculative advertising in a project called “Concepting with Convicts.”

Their mission statement: “Great ideas can come from anywhere. We're using the prison pen pal system to prove it.”

In an email to me, one of the copywriters, Ben Pfutzenreuter, wrote: “One of the things we embrace is advertising. One of the things we marginalize is the humanity of criminals. Well, agencies are always saying they want to hire interesting people… If you ask us, convicts are pretty interesting people.

“For the past couple months [we] have been using the prison pen pal system to concept ads with convicted felons. It's been a pretty interesting experience in exploring, and even circumventing, the corrections system of our country.”

The copywriters, Pfutzenreuter and Pat Davis, are both interns at the San Francisco office of Digitas/LBi. Two art directors, Marcus Löf and Luis Gonzalez, are aiding them with their project.

The creatives say they want to keep the names of the prisoners—and even the prisons—anonymous for now. Davis says they started this project for an awards show brief while they were ad students, but it has grown to something much more than a portfolio piece. Pfutzenreuter says they are now looking at ways to make the project “more transparent.”

Let’s check out some of their felons’ ads.

(To be clear: These are speculative ads and are not endorsed by the companies mentioned. The brief, role, and notes are as they appear on the Concepting with Convicts website.)

Brief: Sell tattoo removal to ex-cons.
Roles: Convict served as copywriter. We provided art direction.

It’s a perfect headline targeting tatted ex-cons. The placement is flawless as well. Excellent ad. Bravo.

Brief: LoJack never lets up the search.
Roles: Convict served as art director. We provided copy.

This felon’s art direction is good—so good that the ad almost doesn’t need the headline, or it should just be the tagline. The convict told the writers LoJack, a tracking system designed to locate a car after it has been stolen, is pretty easy to circumvent, something the brass at the Canton, Massachusetts, company won’t be happy to read.

Brief: Keep kids in school.
Roles: Convict served as copywriter. We provided art direction.
Note: Inmate attained his GED while in prison.

A “stay-in-school” ad by a convict carries a bit more weight than your typical PSA. Unless, of course, you live in Australia, where dropping out of school means you will be blown up by landmines.

Brief: Show folks why they need a safe. 
Roles: Convict served as art director. We provided copy.
Note: Inmate informed us that a heavy safe was a serious deterrent to the average home invader, who looks to grab as much as he can, as fast as he can.

Whom are you going to believe when it comes to home security—this guy, or a convict?

Brief: Help Amnesty International speak truth.
Roles: Convict served as copywriter. We provided art direction.
Note: The inmate was concerned that criticizing law enforcement would garner him unwanted attention from corrections officers while serving his sentence.

This is better than many Amnesty ads I’ve seen by major agencies, especially considering the current goings-on in many of the hot spots around the world.

It will be interesting to see where the creators of this project take it. They wouldn’t comment when I asked if they plan to pitch real clients with future ads (and maybe get the felons a little scratch; that would be nice). For now, Davis says that maybe this process will show the inmates that their creative talents can translate into a real career in the outside world.

And they are right: Ad creativity can come from anyone. You don’t need to go to an overpriced ad school to put together a portfolio of good spec ads, which is all you need to get an entry-level position in an ad agency’s creative department. The good creative directors don’t give a shit where you went to school; they just want to see how you think.

The great copywriter Ed McCabe, of the aforementioned Scali, McCabe, Sloves (though he was retired when the fake Volvo spot was produced), dropped out of high school at the tender age of 15, to sell cars. Less than 20 years later, he became the youngest person ever inducted into the One Club’s Advertising Hall of Fame.

See more of the felons’ ads at Concepting With Convicts.

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