March 13, 2012 -- South by Southwest, the festival being held in Austin this week, has been chock full of interesting panels, lots of geeks on their phones, and marketing stunts. But the most daring marketing attempt -- and possibly the biggest backfire -- has come from the New York-based advertising agency Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty (BBH).
The company turned homeless people on the streets of Austin into wireless hotspots.
Knowing there would be high demand for free Internet at the event, the agency outfitted 13 homeless people from the Front Steps shelter in Austin with 4G MiFi devices, which broadcast Internet signals. Each participant was given a T-shirt to help advertise: "I'm Melvin, a 4G Hotspot."
Each homeless participant was paid $20 a day and got to keep all the donations. It was suggested users pay $2 per 15 minutes of Internet time. Users could pay in cash or donate through PayPal.
"Homeless Hotspots in particular came about when we focused on the environment at the annual SXSW event, at which getting high-speed Internet access can be a challenge," Emma Cookson, chairman of BBH, told ABC News."We thought it might be worth trialling, giving the opportunity to homeless people to sell 4G connectivity to the tech-oriented attendees instead of a printed paper," she added.
The reaction to the "experiment" was overwhelmingly negative. Wired's Tim Carmody described it as distopian and said "the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn't care anything at all about them or their future."
But the "homeless hotspots" might not actually have felt that way. "I would say that these people are trying to help the homeless, and increase awareness," Melvin, one of the 13 homeless people in the program, told Buzzfeed. "That's a good side of it, too — we get to talk to people. Maybe give them a different perception of what homeless is like," he said. Similarly, another participant Dusty White told ABC News that he doesn't feel taken for granted and that he enjoyed talking to people.
BBH said this was simply a pilot program. Although it has been rumored that they might bring the program to New York City, Cookson told ABC News that it doesn't have any specific future plans yet, in New York or anywhere. "We are listening hard to this deluge of feedback, trying to learn and respond, and we'll then consider what is appropriate to do next."