Teaching advertising class in Cook County Jail — part 2

LeVarge Harvey, advertising student

This is the second installment of a three-part series. To view part one, click here.

Although “many moons” had passed since Leo Burnett executive producer Ron Nelken taught communication theory and broadcast production at the University of Illinois, his knack for mentorship was still strong when he volunteered to instruct an advertising class for detainees in the Cook County Jail last year.

“We wrote a client brief and then a creative brief, and then I’d explain to (the detainees) what the brief is and broke up the class into three different agencies,” he says. “I gave them blank sheets of paper and worked with them to come up with all the ideas.”

The agency teams developed and sharpened their concepts with critique and guidance from Nelken and photographer Christopher Jacobs, who had created the advertising program as an extension to the photography class that he successfully founded in 2015.

Creative director Anja Moore, another volunteer from Leo Burnett, then transferred the students’ ideas from paper sketches to digital layouts.

Ron Nelken instructs students in an advertising class at Cook County Jail

“She created the print ads using Photoshop, giving suggestions,” says Nelken. “But it was their ideas.”

The instructors connected a laptop computer to a large monitor in the front of the room so that all the students could view the process.

The advertising program’s first client was Off The Street Club, an organization dedicated to bettering the lives of kids in West Garfield Park. Jacobs included the nonprofit on a short list with about eight other potential clients that he “hounded for weeks.”

“My first thought was OTSC, but they were at the end of their season,” he recalls. “I just kept on following up, following up, and finally I talked to Ralph Campagna, the exectuvie director, and he said yeah, no problem, this is great.”

When the project neared its deadline, which was a showcase for friends and family in the facility’s gymnasium, Nelken asked the agency teams to present their campaigns to the class. The first team’s flawless articulation and sincere persuasion set the tone for excellence.

Anja Moore works with students in an advertising class at Cook County Jail

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, I’m Mr. LeVarge. This is Mr. Ricky. We’re from the advertising company of 2XL. We were hired to make a brochure for the Off The Street Club. Me, myself, as a juvenile, I attended the Off The Street Club, so this is an honor for me.”

2XL’s four-page brochure opened via a foldout that represented the club’s doors and featured images of children enjoying the facilities. It received the most votes when the class chose which project to present to the client.

When Campagna saw the piece, he was thrilled “This will make any kid want to come to Off The Street Club,” he said. “We are especially proud that it was made by the men here.”

OTSC printed and distributed hundreds of the brochures over two separate runs.

Mr. LeVarge said that the class made him feel better. “It lets you know that there are people who do care and they want you to learn something or be a better person when you’re released,” he explained. He eventually stood trial and was found not guilty. He had been in jail for nearly three years.

A new client

Christopher Jacobs concludes the advertising class at Cook County Jail with a group hug

Latin Percussion became involved in the program about a year and a half ago, when PR manager Elizabeth Lang donated dozens of instruments to the jail’s weekly drum circle.

Jacobs had organized the drum circle after visiting a Venice Beach jam on a break from the 2015 Grammy Awards. He enlisted the professional drummer Blake Cooper to help lead the activity, and he sent footage of the sessions to Lang so she could see and hear the joy that LP had helped to create.

It helped motivate her to become the advertising program’s second client.

“They’re enjoying themselves and that’s all wonderful,” she says. “He came to me with the concept that they wanted to augment this with the advertising/marketing program. I was thrilled. Absolutely.”

For the LP project, Nelken followed the same process that had established while leading the class on the OTSC print ads, but he emphasized broadcast in his general guidelines.

“We spent the first couple of classes explaining how old advertising used to work,” he says, “how it’s currently with social media, the web, and how you’re narrow casting versus broadcasting.”

The students developed storylines based on a brief that reiterated LP’s professional branding.

“Latin Percussion came about about 50 years ago, when the trade embargos with Cuba made it impossible to get quality Latin Percussion instruments in the United States,” explains Lang. “The founder started making bongos, djembes, congas, initially, in New York City.”

One of the ideas that emerged during class featured existing footage of celebrities playing the drums.

The commercial became an excellent example for Nelken to teach an advanced lesson.

“I had to explain, you know, we can do this,” he says. “But a client can’t run it because you have to license the people, the music and all that footage.”

The other ideas included a poem written by a detainee during creative writing class that was transformed into a script and a traditional 74-second spot titled, “Thank You.”

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


Latin Percussion — Clips

Agency: Cook County Jail Mental Health Transition Center Advertising Class

   Advertising Class Instructors:

     Christopher Jacobs

     Ron Nelken: Leo Burnett

     Anja Moore: Leo Burnett

   Post Production — The Colonie

     Bob Ackerman: Editor

     Graham Chapman: Assistant Editor

     Lauren Malis: Colorist

   Audio — Noisefloor

     Cory Coken, Audio Mix