The South by Southwest geekfest conference in Austin this month has produced a lot of chatter, but nothing produced an uproar quite like the Homeless Hotspots.
The experiment by BBH Labs had homeless people carry special equipment and wear T-shirts describing themselves as 4G hot spots, so that conference-goers — in return for donations — could get Internet connections on the go. The initiative was immediately dubbed “exploitive,” “dystopian” and “unselfconscious gall” by tech bloggers and social media users. BBH said that although it felt villainized, the criticism was positive for the homeless because “these people are no longer invisible.”
BBH also said the hot spots were an attempt to modernize the street newspaper model, in which homeless people sell newspapers such as “Street Sense” in cities across the United States. But attempts to do “homeless marketing” like the Homeless Hotspots have been around for years.
The most prominent and controversial example has been a company called Bumvertising, which since 2005 has paid homeless people in Seattle to display advertising such as the URL of a poker player matchup site.
Homeless rights advocates have decried the company as exploiting the poor and pointed out that the use of the word “bum” is considered pejorative.
But Benjamin Rogovy, the 20-something entrepreneur who started Bumvertising, has argued that both the companies and homeless people benefit. In this video posted to his Web site, Rogovy looks for homeless people to employ and explains what it is he does:
Last year, Los Angeles-based film and television producer David Permut tried a similar experiment. He paid $100 to a homeless veteran to hold up a sign for a new film he had produced, “Youth in Revolt.”
When questioned about the tactic by film industry blogger Nikki Finke, Permut defended it, saying “It’s been very good for us and for him. . . . So I started thinking: why don’t the movie studios go to all the homeless people and pay them to hold up one-sheets?”
Watch “Clarence the homeless hotspot” explain BBH’s initiative:
What do you think? Is homeless advertising innovative or exploitative? Let us know in the comments below.