SXSW’s Homeless Hotspots Exploit Disenfranchised Americans

Marketing agency BBH claims altruistic reasons for using homeless people as wi-fi transmitters, but their cheeky T-shirts say otherwise.

South by Southwest’s technology conference usually gets props as one of the cooler geek-fests in the country, but this year, most of the dispatches from Austin have been about been a marketing agency called BBH that decided to use homeless people as wireless transmitters. For $20 a day plus tips, each of the 13 “employees” carried Wi-Fi devices while wearing cheeky T-shirts: “I’m Christy, a 4G Hotspot.”

The conference attendees, running around with their smartphones and tech toys would be encouraged to tip.

Gross, right?

Defenders of the idea—including the local shelter, which helped set the project up—cling to the idea that a job is a job. But I don’t think that erases all that’s wrong with this particular job.

For starters, BBH’s stated goal—“rais[ing] awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society,” also looks a lot like finding cheap labor in people desperate for work. (Alarming that one commenter on the New York Times article applaud the idea as a real business model. Doesn’t anybody remember The Jungle?)

And as far as “engaging with mainstream society,” we can all agree that people who find themselves without a place to live have become one of the country’s most disenfranchised people, but the lofty notion that a marketing agency wants serve as some sort of cultural ambassador between the haves and the have nots seems like a joke: They wanted cheap employees. They got it. They wanted buzz. They got it. Had they been interested in social justice, they’d have worked with South by Southwest to give these people jobs throughout the festival, something they could put on a resume. Possibly something that didn’t involve a cheeky T-shirt.

It’s easy to group everyone who shares that particular circumstance—being without a home—into one lump. We do it all the time. I read once that Project Home prefers to say “people without a home” as opposed to “the homeless,” because the latter mistakes a circumstance for a person. It strips away the dignity we give each other as human beings just by recognizing each other as distinct people with distinct stories. It’s the dignity that gets me here. I often see men on the streets here who look about the age of my dad—that is, late 50s, early 60s. I can’t even help it now—I constantly see his face in some of the guys who ask for coffee, because it’s cold, and they’re tired.

My dad, who believes as much as anybody I know in an honest day’s work, would put on a funny t-shirt and become a human hotspot for cash if he needed to. But I wonder if the folks at BBH thought of dignity when they came up with their brilliant marketing plan. I wonder if they put a face on their $20 human hotspots. Because when I do, it looks less like a splashy PR stunt and more like total and utter disregard for humanity. Which, in the end, is not such great marketing.