I posted on Facebook earlier today that, “As the expression goes, this seems wrong on so many levels,” in a reference to the controversy surrounding Homeless Hotspots at the South by Southwest tech fest in Austin, Texas. There appears to be no one out there with a middle-of-the- road opinion about an ad agency’s decision to hire members of Austin’s homeless community as walking and talking wi-fi hotspots.
The campaign by BBH Labs, a NYC-based agency, was strongly supported by a few of my friends on Facebook and was found to be quite obscene by others. It seems to be just about the same everywhere. Bloggers and journalists defending it. Bloggers and journalists decrying the promotion as foul, in bad taste and exploitative.
Defenders say the stunt draws attention to the plight of Austin’s homeless citizens. And provided 14 homeless people with a paying job for a day or two. Defenders are making a big deal about one of the “workers” (Clarence Jones) who said he doesn’t see what all the fuss is about and that he was happy to interact with conference attendees and pick up a few bucks.
BBH meanwhile is calling the activity a “charitable experiment” and in a company blog said, “Homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible.” (Though it’s a pity in some coverage this “worker” — Clarence Jones — was pictured but not mentioned by name.)
In its defense, BBH consulted with an Austin-based non-profit that works with the city’s homeless population before implementing the idea. The non-profit, Front Steps, took pause at first but later agreed the idea was sound after looking into BBH’s track record of supporting homeless people in NYC.
The noise at conferences like SXSW is fierce. I’ve never been, but I’ve attended enough conferences like it over the years to know what it takes for a company’s message to be heard — bold creativity. For many firms — marketing, interactive, advertising and PR agencies — SXSW is as much a “make or break” business opportunity for them as the companies they represent. Pulling out all the stops is the norm.
A lot of people never heard of BBH until this week, but thanks to the likes of Clarence Jones and other “homeless hotpsots” who were hired by the firm, that has changed. This week you can bet BBH is getting more hits on its website than ever before.
As for me, I’m holding my ground. The rise of social media and the ubiquity of technology means that the creative services community has at its fingertips more creative solutions than ever before. It’s up to all of us to use them effectively. And thoughtfully.