Is “Homeless Hotspots” Ad Campaign Brilliant Marketing or Dehumanizing to its Participants?

This ad campaign may have gone too far with trying to “help” the homeless.
homeless-hotspot

The SXSW interactive portion of the massive collection of festivals kicked off this past weekend, with  the SXSW Interactive focuses on emerging and influential technology such as Instagram, which is to finally be coming  to Android powered devices some time soon.

Historically, start-ups have used SXSW to either launch their apps or services or “break out” to a wider audience. Twitter and Foursquare are the most famous SXSW success stories but there’s been many more.

With all these tech start-ups, app developers and technology floating around this festival, why is it something as simple as a WiFi hotspot that has caught my eye?

It’s because these “hotspots” have names such as Clarence and Jason, instead of names like Sprint and Verizon.

And it’s because these “hotspots” are actually real people.  Homeless people at that.

Twelve homeless men and one woman have been wandering the streets of Austin this week, offering SXSW-goers a service that they knew these tekkies can do without…the internet.  And especially at a festival where everyone feel that they have to stay connected at all times.

As part of a “charitable” experiment to integrate discussion of homelessness into the SXSW atmosphere, New York-based ad agency BBH (Bartle Bogie Hegarty) Labs transformed thirteen homeless people into “Homeless Hotspots.”

Bartle believes the homeless helpers can make some decent money by accepting a few dollars from each user who wants to use the WiFi service. Users can even pay right through Paypal, on a site that has been set up for the occasion, at which point the homeless person is paid at the end of the event.

Talk about being creative and thinking outside the box.  This ad agency, on perhaps the busiest weekend of the year for technology aficionados, gave homeless people WiFi hotspots, for them to capitalize and try to make money by strategically placing themselves amongst the crowds of people eager to stay connected to the outside world.

On the surface, this is genius.  Something like this would be applauded amongst the advertising community and given a Clio award.

However clever this ad campaign was by using “humanity” as part of its focal point, it actually does the opposite by dehumanizing the participants by having them walk around in tee-shirts that read:

I’M [FIRST NAME],
A 4G HOTSPOT
SMS HH [FIRST NAME] TO 25827 FOR ACCESS
www.homelesshotspots.org

A 4G connection is exchanged for a suggested donation of $2 per 15 minutes.

I’m all for helping the homelessness, with trying to help generate for them some type of  income that they so desperately need, but couldn’t an argument be made that even with all of the contributions that I am sure they collected, that they were underpaid?

BBH claims that all proceeds go to the individual who has the hotspot, but in the end, it seems like this is all about BBH Labs’ agenda, which certainly isn’t going to help the homeless.  At least not all of the time.  But hey, at least these homeless people get a little money in the process, right?

Yes, the homeless gets some temporary relief but BBH gets brand recognition that can last a life time.  Don’t let them fool you when they say that all funds are going to the homeless.  Think of this way, if the funds wouldn’t be going to the homeless those same funds would be spent to help strengthen BBH’s image.  There’s no better publicity than to “give” money away to charity and then to have those good deeds talked about and even praised, and to then have that story to go viral.

That’s what I mean by these homeless men and women being underpaid.  The exposure being gained from all of this is invaluable and priceless.  And BBH knows this.  They’re a marketing firm.  They should know.

BBH has responded to the criticism via its blog:

Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villianizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible.

The company clarifies that it is not selling anything, the Hotspot Managers will keep their profits, and rebutting speculation that the experiment will be turned into a reality TV show.

I’m interested in knowing your thoughts about this.  Do you think that this is a good way to spread the word about homelessness or if people will just see this as some sort of a gimmick instead?

I guess something is better than nothing.

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