The Story Behind Change the Ref's Bulletproof Vest Initiative

Here's how it all came together

"How was school?" I asked my sons as we pulled into Aldi's last fall. 

"We did the bad guy drill today, Daddy," was their response. 

"What’s that?" I said.

"Where we hide in the bathroom until the bad guy goes away."

I idly wondered about the recent Tops Grocery shooting in Buffalo, and how long it would be until Aldi was renting out bulletproof vests with their carts.

Was this going to be our new reality? Everybody we talked to was fed up with the direction gun violence was heading and felt helpless to do anything. With over 400 mass shootings already this year, wearing bulletproof vests to a concert or a movie wasn't sounding that far fetched.

We asked, "What would shoppers say if we offered to rent them a bulletproof vest?" And the idea for "The New Life Vest" was born.

The first iteration was simply putting a bulletproof vest kiosk in a grocery store and capturing hidden footage of people's reactions. Then we shared the idea with Manuel Oliver at Change the Ref, and he took it to another level.

Manny and Patricia Oliver had lost their son Joaquin during the Parkland High School shooting and recently done the brilliant "Lost Class" project with Leo Burnett. Manny loved our idea and wanted to sponsor "The New Life Vest." But he felt with all the mass shootings, one grocery store wasn't enough. We agreed to try a multiple venue approach.

We had $5,000 for our total budget. So naturally it was hard to find partners. Even with production time 100 percent donated, the first "real bids" were coming in at $30-50K. Our re-fitted mobile "food truck turned bulletproof vest store" cost $15,000 alone.

We tried to raise more money but got kicked off two fundraising sites for violating their "no politics" rules. Celebrities were willing to lend their fame to the cause, but not their dollars. We were losing hope.

Then, six months later, we heard about Manufacture, a new production company started by guys I used to work with. We pitched the idea, and they were 100 percent in. Or rather, $5,000 in, no matter what. 

Plural Films, Ditch Edit, Echo Boys, Irei Edit and Grey Ghost Music donated their skills. As we quickly built a website, and pulled stock footage for the spoof intro video, our art buyer, Beth Elmore scoured sites for bulletproof vests, including kid-sizes. And in place of a truck, we wrapped a cheap Target clothing rack that was strong enough to carry seven steel-plated vests.

Manny and Patricia offered to fly to Minneapolis directly from a Washington sit-in and serve as our on-camera hosts.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we failed to secure permission to film at any retail venue. "Um, could we shoot video of your customers wearing bullet proof vests?" That simply didn't fly. So after consulting a lawyer, we filmed only on the public sidewalks.

The good news? Our has already generated thousands of visits and dozens of letters to congress. And no death threats so far. 

The bad news? In the time it took to read this, another 1.7 Americans have been shot.

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Brett Essman
Brett Essman is creative director at Preston Spire.

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