Leo Burnett executive producer Ron Nelken transformed advertsing concepts from Cook County Jail detainees into professional quality spec television commercials with the help of friends and associates in Chicago’s advertising and film industries.
“I got a bunch of crew people who I’ve known over the years,” he says. “We shot two of these films.”
Nelken is a volunteer instructor for the jail’s advertising program, which was founded by photographer Christopher Jacobs in 2015. For the previsious several weeks, he had guided the class on commercial concepts for drum manufacturer Latin Percussion, the program’s second client.
Now, the project was nearing its deadline, a showcase for friends and family in the facility’s gymnasium.
The crew, including Nelken, filmed on location in the jail’s Mental Health Transition Center. They captured footage for two of the three commercials scheduled to run at the event. One was a tradtional spot with the tagline, “American Made, with a Cuban Accent.” The other was a poem written by a detainee named Marshum Deandre Hunt during a creative writing class that was also founded by Jacobs.
“I also had an editorial house, The Colonie, that was kind enough to provide Bob Ackerman, an Emmy award-winning editor, to put the material together,” Nelken continues.
Ackerman has cut commercials for some of the world’s largest advertisers — including Hallmark, McDonald’s and Toyota — that have been viewed by tens of millions of consumers. He spent about 40 hours working on the film shot in the jail and visited the class to conduct editing sessions onsite.
He says that the students were as confident and inspired as his professional clients.
“They knew exactly what they wanted in terms of advertising,” he explains. “I had a point of view. They had a point of view. We made adjustments.”
On the day of the premiere, the gymnasium filled with family, friends, supporters, staff and crews from at least one cable network. Detainees occupied the stands. Attendees sat on the side. When the executive director of Off The Street Club Ralph Campagna arrived, one of the men hollered “Ralph! I’m so glad you came back.”
Campgana had been the advertising program’s first client.
“You know,” he said, “it’s kind of nice that they recall.”
The students formed a circle in the middle of the room. They launched into a rousing percussion jam that was followed by a group chant: “Starting right here, right now, we choose to make the necessary changes in our lives to be successful…”
Jacobs, who created the advertising program as an extension to the photography class that he had founded in 2015, initiated the agenda by popping three New Year’s Eve style party favors that showered glitter and streamers over the crowd.
“Yes, the story’s been told, but this is a different story,” he began. “It’s grooving. It’s growing. Artists, writers, drummers and award winning agency creative and executives have participated here, and I’m really, really proud of you guys.”
The ensuing program elicited no less than three standing ovations. The words “I love you” were heard time and again.
Christina Chico was one of the presenters who uttered them. She is an intern for the county and graduate student at Midwestern University, currently studying to earn an SID — “Similar to a PhD,” she explains, “it’s just more clinical.”
Pursuing a hypothesis about the value of art therapy, Chico had not only attended classes but also conducted surveys with the students before and after the project. The results showed that individual levels of self-esteem had increased while depression and anxiety had decreased, which inspired her to declare that art and music are valid tools of wellness during the presentation.
“They are a form of therapy that should be taken seriously,” she said. “Now we can show them to the world and it’s all because of you guys and I’m so proud of all of you and I love you. Thank you!”
When Latin Percussion PR manager Elizabeth Lang addressed the audience, she offered the students mad praise for capturing the spirit of the drum.
“Drums are part of celebration,” she explained. “They’re part of religious ceremonies … in battles, they put the drummers in the front line … You’ve taken that feeling and conveyed it in this advertising campaign, and that’s something that’s incredibly difficult to do.”
Spontaneous, genuine applause broke out all day. It was difficult to say who got the most, but one particular student roused his fellow detainees into the air. He spoke in an enthusiastic rasp and introduced himself at the beginning and end of his speech.
“The mind is a reflection, man, of all the pictures, man, in your experience,” he said. “Use’m, man, to catapult you to something better … each and every one of y’all, man, sitting there is a whole lot better than what people think … This is where you make a change … This is where you take that picture and you make it last forever … And my name is Samuel Vaughn, and I am in a photo class.”
The crowd erupted in a standing ovation.
Since founding the program, Jacobs has expanded the creative writing class to the female and maximum security populations of the jail and launched Arts To Excel, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to helping incacerated people achieve their potential and get in touch with their humanity through photography and the arts. To learn more about the organization, click here.
CREDITS — “Poem”
Client: Latin Percussion
Agency: Cook County Jail Mental Health Transition Center Advertising Class
Advertising Class Instructors:
Ron Nelken: Leo Burnett
Anja Moore: Leo Burnett
Jake Brusha: Camera Operator
Ron Nelken: Camera Operator
Chris Wurst: Camera Operator
Cory Coken: Audio
Post Production — The Colonie
Bob Ackerman: Editor
Graham Chapman: Assistant Editor
Lauren Malis: Colorist
Audio — Noisefloor
Cory Coken, Audio Mix