Criminal minds join a marketing masterclass

Using prisoners to develop campaigns for your brand may create some cracking publicity, but can it really work in practice?

My father often claims that marketers are no better than thieves. Annoyingly, it appears he may have been right for once. Last week, telecoms company TalkTalk announced that it is indeed associating with (reformed) criminals by launching a marketing drive using a gang of former pickpockets to slip money into consumers’ pockets.

The TalkTalk “putpocket” scheme aims to cheer up consumers by depositing anything from £5 to £20 in people’s bags or pockets. The telecoms marketers hope to use thievery techniques for positive gain to hand out a total of £100,000 when the London trial is extended countrywide this autumn. Providing consumers with small moments of unexpected pleasure is certainly an attention-grabbing technique, but TalkTalk’s programme deserves further examination because it asks former criminals to create something beneficial for society.

In a recession, you might expect such society-friendly ideas to have dropped off the corporate radar to be replaced by drives for cold, hard profit. But now, more than ever, a rash of schemes seem to be emerging that try to better use neglected parts of society for creative purposes.

Simon Strong, founder of consultancy Human Zoo, is developing a programme that aims to create a prison-based advertising agency, provisionally termed “Porridge” and staffed by offenders. The agency will equip those serving sentences with the training to work on creative advertising projects and aims to teach people to manage projects and gain sales skills.

The consultancy will work with transformation body The Chrysalis Programme, which hopes to reduce re-offending rates by 10% in 2010 by creating offender training initiatives. The idea is that Porridge workers will create ad campaigns for charities or not-for-profit organisations, which will benefit both the prisoners and those organisations that can least afford marketing.

Strong claims he has support from executives at some of marketing’s top agencies, including Fallon and Saatchi & Saatchi, who will help put the scheme into action. The IPA has also agreed that those from more traditional agencies mentoring the Porridge staff will be able to attribute this time to their Continuous Professional Development qualification.

The idea of using offenders in marketing is not entirely new. Online agency Summit Media has long worked with prisoners to train them in interactive marketing techniques. Not only do people get involved in a “commercial workplace” that prepares them for a job but they are encouraged to develop their own websites.

The success of Summit Media has encouraged brands like Ethical Superstore, an online retailer, to turn to the inmates at HMP Wolds to handle their digital marketing. But the emergence of Porridge, the TalkTalk scheme and “Santa Fu”, a fashion and accessories brand developed and sold from a German prison, suggests that this type of marketing programme is stepping up a gear.

There are several aspects to this story that I find interesting. First is the moral one – is it right to ask those serving sentences to create advertising? Isn’t this asking vulnerable people to do work that is normally paid well on the cheap?

This is certainly not Strong’s intention. Porridge aims to provide education and training for people who are otherwise marginalised in society. It isn’t about taking advantage.

My second question is/ Will the campaigns be any good? It’s all very well being a charity with little cash, but a lack of funds doesn’t mean that a brand should take any old offer of marketing support. It could be more damaging to a charity to run a badly conceived campaign on account of it having social responsibility overtones than not running one at all.

For me, advertising should only be done in conjunction with the rest of your marketing programme in mind. It’s the strategic thinking that sits behind any creative work and how it all works together that’s important. It seems unlikely that an ad agency based in prison will be able to have access to any comprehensive strategy sitting behind a brand.

Third, would you trust offenders working on your brand? These days we talk about how agencies and clients need to work in partnership. They need to share information and data. They need to hand over research. Would your chief executive trust someone in prison to sign a non-disclosure agreement and stick to it?

These concerns aside, I think projects like TalkTalk’s “putpockets” and Porridge have great potential. I remember the folks at Ford talking about their work with young offenders at Feltham a number of years ago but it seems that more brands than ever are trying to brighten up Britain with projects that go beyond standard marketing.

So while my dad might have been right about the association between marketing and thieves, I can still claim he’s wrong about just what those two groups are doing together. It seems they’re trying to do something that’s not half bad.

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