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Middle schoolers, ad giant create anti-bullying advertisements

East Harlem middle schoolers have teamed up with one of the city’s largest advertising firms to create a series of commercials against bullying.A group of students from Isaac Newton Middle School screened their spots last night at the Midtown headquarters of advertising giant McCann Erickson (the same company that bought Sterling Cooper two seasons ago on the TV show “Mad Men”).

“Bullying is a topic that is all around the world, so we’re trying to send a message about it,” said Brandon Simmons, a seventh grader. Then he switched to pitch mode: “Our intended audience is students.”

Simmons and his classmates, sixth-graders Genessy Vasquez and Karina Pena, made the commercial in an after-school program, called “Ad Lab,” created by the nonprofit Citizen Schools.

The thirteen students in the Ad Lab program have been working on the commercials since February. After the group decided to address bullying, each student picked jobs: Simmons was the art director for his commercial, while Pena was the director. Then they began a process that included analyzing commercials, then copywriting and pitching ideas before shooting, editing, and finally presenting their spots.

Last year, a video about the Ad Lab program was featured on YouTube and garnered over 150,000 views. Three schools are adding the program next year, according to Aidan Thomas, who created the program.

In his commercial, Simmons plays Karma, clad in a cape, shutter-shade sunglasses, and a large, K-shaped pendant. Thanks to his intervention, a bully ends up with juice all over her shirt, while the teased party gets a sharp new outfit. As Simmons put it before the screening: “That’s what karma’s all about: what goes around, comes around.”

The rest of the students, all middle schoolers from the East Harlem school, created two other commercials. One depicts the conflicted conscience of a potential bully (in “Angel & Devil”) while another imagines a school where everyone communicates by singing, and picks on the one girl who chooses to talk (in “Locker Slam”).

In response to years of pressure from parents and anti-bullying activists, the city announced in February that it would require school safety personnel to be trained on bullying issues.

Citizen Schools, which currently operates in six city schools, makes projects like Ad Lab the centerpieces of its school improvement model. (Its New York City executive director, Nitzan Pelman, is also on GothamSchools’ board.) The organization places volunteers and Americorps teachers in after-school programs in middle schools and asks them to develop “apprenticeships” for students along with the school staff. The apprenticeships, usually 10-week-long programs, give students an experience of fields like science, marketing and journalism, that culminates in presentations called “WOW! events.”

The apprenticeships are a component of a larger “career and college connection” curriculum, which Citizen Schools says encourages the middle schoolers to map out a plan towards a specific career. “If they know where they want to go, then they have a goal,” said Stacey Gilbert, a Citizen Schools spokeswoman.

Thomas, who has worked as a Citizen Schools Teaching Fellow at Isaac Newton for two years, said he was in a unique position to start Ad Lab: His mother, Joyce King Thomas, was formerly McCann Erickson’s chief creative officer. Together, they created the first iteration of the program, in the spring of 2010.

Videos of the advertisements, available below, will also be posted on YouTube.

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