If you subscribe to the theory that all press is good press, then maybe a "homeless hotspot" is right up your alley. By now, many have heard about the experiment by BBH, the New York advertising agency that works with the likes of Levi's, Axe, and British Airways, to turn homeless people into wireless hotspots during South by Southwest Interactive in Austin this week.
Not surprisingly a few folks have found this distasteful and condescending. All of this has landed BBH in a heap of controversy, but the agency has plowed ahead defending its effort, as well as the negative press as "very good for the homeless people we're trying to help," in a blog post.
Ad agencies are known for stirring up controversy in their constant race to be the most "creative," while PR professionals will tell you that they spend as much time trying to keep their clients and organizations out of the press as they do trying to gain exposure.
But what have they done for the homeless? Because isn't that supposed to be the point? The agency paid the homeless to hang around the Austin Convention Center, and then it was up to them to solicit attendees to sidle up to them to get their Internet fix. Donations of $2 were encouraged, and all money went directly to the individual.
An out-of-work electrician who participated in the program, called it a "great opportunity" for an honest day's work, and the program director for the homeless shelter that BBH consulted with told the Times he was surprised by the criticism. That's hard praise to ignore.
Nonetheless, anyone who attended SXSW was confronted on a by-the-minute basis with various marketing ploys: free T-shirts, free sunglasses, free ponchos, beer, water bottles, flash drives, free rides, and people dressed in all sorts of company-inspired costumes. When presented with a homeless person wielding a hotspot, it's not surprising that many were turned off by what seemed like an elitist marketing stunt in a sea of prosperity (I dare you to count the number of tablets in Austin right now).
I'm sure that the dozen men, and one woman, who participated enjoyed earning money and having a job for a couple weeks, and that's terrific. Temporary work can - temporarily - help those who find themselves suddenly without a roof. But I'm not sure that it's any different than offering them a squeegee brush. It feels too much like a band-aid on what is a serious and alarming problem in the US, which was racked by an economic crisis over the last few years, starring a startling upheaval in housing and a crushing loss of American jobs.
What I did like about the BBH stunt were the profiles of the people behind the homeless hotspots found on its dedicated website, which was advertised on the workers' T-shirts. It included two to three lines about each participant, such as this one on Thomas.
Tom is a local from Austin. He has been homeless about three years and finds employment opportunities difficult to come by due to a previous (non-violent) conviction. Tom is passionate about art.
Now we know who Tom is and why he's likely out of work. He's no longer just a hotspot with a mustache.
Still, I wish BBH had put more effort into this experiment. Could they have included volunteers from the local shelter in the effort, thus removing the seemingly exploitative nature of the initiative and demonstrating the collaboration needed to solve this national crisis - while also possibly doubling proceeds?
Perhaps volunteers could have also handed out flash drives with literature about the homeless and how the well-to-do technophiles could help? Could they have set up an additional kiosk where visitors could get more information about the homeless in the town they would call home in the next couple of weeks?
Could they have facilitated a better fundraising component where the homeless were paid for their time, but also collected donations for those homeless less often seen on the street but just as in need, such as abused women, children, or the mentally ill?
Could there have been a job training component attached to this? With all the tech know-how on hand, could SXSW attendees have swapped some of their computer skills for some 4G?
Could they have called it something else? Could the T-shirts have seemed less, well, advertise-y.