Inside Voice

Face of ‘Fed Up’ gun violence ad uses head, prison experience

By Bill Dries

The advertisement moves fast, even for 30 seconds. It’s got hip-hop artist Marco Pave with Grammy Award-winning producer Carlos Broady. And the message is to the point as the camera comes in close on the face of a man who says emphatically, “Don’t lose your head, use your head.”

As he speaks, the words “Not An Actor” appear on the screen.

The ad, which began airing on radio in June and television in early August, is the latest in a series of anti-gun-violence commercials produced by Operation Safe Community, the local law enforcement criminal justice system coalition, and the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission.

Howard Robertson, left, CEO and principal of Trust Marketing & Communications, meets with Jerald Trotter, the face of the new “Fed Up” anti-gun-violence campaign. Trotter served nearly 13 years in prison after killing Jonathan Smith in 2000 during an argument at a sports bar.  (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

And the face and voice of the ad is Jerald Trotter, who served 12 years and nine months in prison for killing Jonathan Smith in 2000 during an argument at a sports bar at Winchester and Riverdale roads.

Trotter, a Lausanne Collegiate School alumnus and college graduate, was working in the bond department at First Tennessee Bank when everything went wrong during a Pittsburgh Steelers-Dallas Cowboys game on the screens at the bar.

“It’s hardly, hardly ever someone planned to do it. I met dozens of people who had killed someone. … and very rarely did someone plan to do it,” Trotter said of the men he met in prison. “I know I didn’t. It’s a spur-of-the-moment, heat-of-passion type of stupidity. … Had I constantly seen a commercial like the one we did, that may have popped in my head. I’m sure it would have that day. It may have caused me to take different actions and take a breather.”

Trotter’s childhood basketball coach, Howard Robertson, wrote the ad campaign based on conversations he had with Trotter about his prison experiences and initially planned to use Trotter’s voice as a rough track of what the ad would sound like.

“The first line of it is ‘I’ve been watching y’all come in here for years because you shot somebody,’” said Robertson, the CEO and principal of Trust Marketing & Communications Inc. “He was telling me how he used to see these young cats walk in. And he said they were acting like the stars of their own rap video.”

Trotter said he saw it happen repeatedly during the time he spent behind bars at four Tennessee state prisons.

“They got their own rap, already rapping it. They are letting everybody hear it. They are talking about what they did out there and who they think they are,” he said. “And the reality of where the hell they are and the hell that is about to be their life every day hasn’t hit them yet.”

Some of that is a defense mechanism.

“It starts off being that detached and then it turns into a defensive mechanism and then it disappears and they crumble,” he said. “Some, after they crumble, they build themselves back up, get in the law library and work on getting out or either just work on bettering themselves. The others crumble and they stay dust. They become predators in the compound. They just give all the way up.”

While Trotter was in prison, the first of the crime commission ad campaigns began airing in 2003 – also written and produced by Robertson – with the tag line “No Deals.”

“Brothers had that commercial memorized. They knew all of the ‘ifs, ands and buts,’” Trotter said. “They knew what crime got what kind of time – you get so many years for each gun. The gun is going to be this, and each bullet is going to be this. They knew this like lawyers spitting it out because they had friends fall to that fate.”

Robertson and crime commission president Bill Gibbons, who was district attorney general at the time, credit the series for drops in violent crime when the spots aired in high rotation.

“It occurred to us that everybody is talking about them. Everybody is talking around them. Everybody’s talking over them,” Robertson said. “But nobody’s talking to them. And nobody’s talking to them about that stuff.”

The first in the series reflected the sentiments of crime victims talking to the camera and at those who killed their loved ones. The next in the series featured a gravelly voice that Robertson knew from his days working as a publicist at Stax Records. Skip Pitts wasn’t a singer. He was best known for his guitar work with Isaac Hayes on the soundtrack for the movie “Shaft.”

“Skip had that voice. He sounded like an O.G. So we used him,” Robertson said of Pitts, who died in 2012. “Skip was anything but. … He was talking directly to them. We do it in their vernacular. That, I think, has made the difference and Jerald continued in that trend.”

In all four prisons where Trotter served time, he served as a GED instructor for those taking the high school equivalency exam.

“I can remember one day being in there waking up, because I had a good day teaching that day. And back in the pod we had a little study group and we had a good study group. I was thinking, ‘I wonder if they know how to solve for X now,’” Trotter said. “This is my first thought in the morning. And I’m making 15 cents an hour. Is this my calling? There ain’t no money in this.”

But Trotter said it made him happier than working in bonds. And GED instruction is one facet of a nonprofit organization called Saving Absalom that Trotter is in the process of forming with Booker T. Washington School principal Alicia Kiner and others. The organization also will focus on mentoring and other counseling.

Trotter also is writing his autobiography and is aware some people’s reaction to the crime that landed him in prison is he doesn’t deserve a second chance.

“This is what a lot of people don’t understand,” he said. “Most people that get out of prison have lofty ambitions. You should see their eyes when those days are coming. They are like children at Christmas. They have all sorts of things they want to do. They get out and it’s not easy.”

Trotter said he’s fortunate to have family and friends like Robertson who have helped.

“I would say 95 percent of the guys I knew that left that place, left that place with the intention of being better and making it a better world. They all wanted to reinvent themselves. And then they get out and basically society flipped them the finger,” Trotter said. “They go back to being who they were. The attitude of ‘to hell with them, throw them away, once they’ve been there they’re damaged’ – that is not good for that person. That is horrible for society.”

But most violent offenders released after a long sentence cannot or will not talk about the experience the way Trotter does.

“There’s not enough of this kind of intelligence on the other side of his experience,” Robertson said. “I’m saying that the way he can accept and process his experience in prison in a way that somebody like you can understand or somebody in business or just a regular person can understand is unusual.”

Robertson hopes the ad campaign will continue.

“We’re going to keep that messaging. That messaging and that spot will evolve into additional messaging,” he said. “I’m a marketer. That’s what we do. Do you ever quit seeing McDonald’s spots? You ever quit seeing Nike spots? It’s not like you can reach a point of saturation where you don’t say it anymore. You need to keep saying it.”