At SXSW, the annual tech startup conference in Austin, 13 homeless men are hanging around the conference center wearing white shirts that say "I'm _____, a 4G hotspot." Each is carrying a wireless internet device, and for a PayPal donation, will provide conference-goers with internet access for as long as they want. .
The men are part of a campaign called "Homeless Hotspots," devised by a marketing firm called BBH. It effectively debuted today, and started backfiring immediately.
The first person to flag the stunt as a little off was the New York Times's David Gallagher, who called the plan it "a little dystopian." Since then, the Internet's been aghast: The story has been both amplified and deprived of context, inspiring thousands of knee-jerk responses. It's really not going over very well at all.
But the mastermind of the campaign, Saneel Radia, the Head of Innovation at BBH New York, is standing by the campaign, though he said he understands the backlash.
"The worry is that these people are suddenly just hardware," he said, "but frankly, I wouldn't have done this if i didn't believe otherwise," He added, "we're very open to this criticism."
BBH partnered with an Austin homeless advocacy group called Front Steps for the project; the organization put the ad agency in touch with participants. (Update: The group responds.) Radia said the Hotspots, who will likely be getting a lot of attention Tuesday, enjoy it so far. "One of the guys used the phrase, 'my small business' today"
"We have very few tools to help homeless," he said, "and one is rooted in print media. The printed media just seems outdated — the basic model seems to work. The street news model is very well praised by homeless organizations."
He was referring to organizations like the Big Issue, which give homeless people a way to make money without begging, as well as a way to socialize with people who might otherwise ignore them.
Radia said the agency came up with the idea a while ago. From a blog post on the BBH site explaining the plan:
One particular aspect we find intriguing is Street Newspapers, which are print publications created and sold by homeless populations as a form of entrepreneurial employment.
The model has proven successful enough to be adopted in cities spanning 30 countries. The issue however, is that like any print publication, these newspapers are under duress from the proliferation of digital media. How often do you see someone “buy” a paper, only to let the homeless individual keep it? This not only prevents the paper from serving as a tool for the individual to avoid begging, but it proves how little value people actually place on the publication itself. Yet the model isn’t inherently broken. It’s simply the output that’s archaic in the smartphone age.
"Basically the seed was to try to help the homeless during SXSW," he said. "Our goal is to reinvent the newspaper model. It's intentionally attention grabbing." He stresses that they're not advertising anything – except perhaps BBH itself – and that the money goes directly to them. The agency has taken to Twitter to respond to critics, too:
Attention grabbing it has been: It was by far the most talked-about thing at SXSW on Sunday night, and even got its own hashtag: #homelesshotspots. It's almost pure vitriol:
The only other human-beings-as-infrastructure project at SXSW comes from FedEx, which has people walking around with suits covered of live USB charging ports. It's inspired plenty of scoffs, but nothing major.
Homeless Hotspots, on the other hand, is a full blown PR disaster for BBH. But some important voices are still missing from the conversation — the voices of the Hotspots themselves.
Update: An Interview with Melvin, one of the SXSW Homeless Hotspots