“Drive it like you stole it,” reads one ad for Cadillac. “Dropping out doesn’t mean you will have more free time,” says a PSA for staying in school, depicting a kid walking into prison. “Not every criminal stands behind bars,” reads another, this time for Amnesty International, showing yellow police tape holding back an officer.
All of these ads have two things in common: They’re not actual ads, and they were written by convicted felons. Hence the overlapping crime themes.
The work comes to us via Concepting with Convicts, a project started by two advertising interns.
“We used the prison pen pal system to contact convicted felons and partner with them to create ads,” one of the founders, Ben Pfutzenreuter, an intern at Digitas/LBi, told Fast Company. “They served as art director or writer, while we filled out the other role. We did this to prove to them that their positive skills can be applied to a life after rehabilitation, and to remind others that good ideas can come from anywhere,” he added.
Pfutzenreuter and his co-conspirator Pat Davis got the idea after coming across inmate art while looking for creative inspiration online. Many of the inmate pen-pal services showcase the art of their inmates. “Going through it, we were amazed about how beautiful the artwork is, how inspiring it is,” Davis told Fast Company. “As creatives we’re always on the look out for inspiration from creative places. It seemed like a perfect fit to try and work with them.”
Using a service called Write a Prisoner, they sent out a bunch of letters explaining that they were students hoping to work on concepts for an advertising project and that none of the work would be professionally produced. After gauging interest, which was enthusiastic, they explained how creative collaboration works and sent out a bunch of different briefs. Inmates responded in a variety of ways, sometimes only sending back headlines or art direction, other times offering their original artwork. All of this was done through snail mail.
The efforts have resulted in a portfolio of compelling work, showcased on the Concepting with Convicts website. “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,” former ad man Mark Duffy, a.k.a “Copyranter,” said of the police tape ad. Many of the concepts work particularly because of the unique perspective of the inmate. “They have a humanity to them and sort of maybe like a truth that we don’t always look at,” explained Davis. “It comes through with a sort of authentic voice.”
For example, a concept ad for Heritage Safe reads: “The One Place They Won’t Look,” which taps into the psyche of thieves, as the note on the project explains. “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.” And, of course, the Cadillac ad–a personal favorite–comes from a criminal perspective. (Although Davis and Pfutzenreuter point out that the convict who wrote the copy for that isn’t serving for larceny.)
Unfortunately, none of these are in the works to be turned into real ads. Nor have the inmates received compensation for their work, since the entire thing is speculative. But, the thinking goes, the process will give inmates the confidence to pursue creative careers after their sentences.
“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,” Pfutzenreuter told Duffy.