Homeless Controversy Brewing at SXSW
Controversy is brewing at South by Southwest (SXSW) this week after an apparent marketing ploy outside the annual music, film, and interactive media conference in Austin.
The advertising agency for SXSW, BBH Labs, had homeless people stand around outside of the conference center offering visitors 4G wifi. The homeless people carried devices emitting 4G WIFI service and wore shirts that said “I am a 4G hotspot” and referred users to a site called “Homeless Hotspots.” The homeless workers were given $20 upfront for their work and almost $10 an hour. Attendees who wanted to use the WIFI were recommended to donate $2 per 15 minutes of use.
Many are saying this marketing ploy crossed the line, objectifying the homeless and using them to generate buzz for the event. The Washington Post even voiced its opinion, stating “Have we lost our humanity?”
BBH calls the “test” a success, saying the money went to a good cause and that the homeless workers got a lot out of the work. They claim it allowed them to converse with people they typically wouldn’t get into conversations with, and in return, it provided them happiness and money.
In my opinion, the agency crossed the line by calling the ploy “Homeless Hotspots.” Hiring homeless workers was great on there part, giving them jobs and experience that they can use for further roles in their lives. However, forcing them to wear shirts that explicitly reveal that they are homeless and a “Homeless Hotspot” is not right. It exploits them for their social status and was simply done as a marketing ploy than better the lives of these people.
Coming from a marketer, SXSW got a great amount of buzz because of this, but there is a line that they crossed. Business has ethics, and this simply went too far. I would advise businesses in the future to think twice about their actions and what kind of effect they have on others.
I lived in Austin for 25 years and still live just outside Austin in the Texas Hill Country. I agree with your assessment and want to expand on it. As an example . . . What if Liberty Tax Service paid homeless folks to stand next to the street in those silly Statue of Liberty costumes to advertise their business? I would applaud that as a visionary way to help the homeless. But, if Liberty Tax Service identified them as homeless then yes, they would cross the line that BBH Labs crossed – exploiting their status in an attempt to drum up business. Imagine yourself at SXSW needing a WiFi hotspot. You see one of the hired homeless people offering one. You’re a kind, decent person and want to help . Since the sign reads “Homeless Hotspots” you make the logical leap that your purchase will help the homeless. Here is where BBH Labs “experiment” may have bordered on deceptive practices. The homeless person has already been paid up front and is being paid by the hour, not on commission based on number or WiFi packages sold. Thus our purchase does not directly help the homeless, but we are lead to believe it will and we feel it’s our good deed of the day. By subtly tapping into our emotions, it feels manipulative and guilt-inducing. It would think it certainly robs the homeless of some of their dignity. And finally, it’s just in poor taste. And that’s wrong. I blog about authenticity at http://www.fierceauthenticity.com.