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SXSW 'Homeless Hotspots' ignite controversy

Advertising agency sparks debate for using homeless men as Internet hot spots.

BBH Labs

The advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty's BHH Labs launched a campaign at the film, music and interactive festival South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, that is raising ire among critics.

In what appears to be a case of poor judgment, BBH Labs kicked off a campaign called "Homeless Hotspots." Yep. It is exactly what it sounds like--walking, talking homeless people who provide access to a 4G network in exchange for a donation (BBH Labs suggests $2 per 15 minutes).

The homeless people in question include Clarence from New Orleans, who lost his house to Hurricane Katrina, and Jeffrey from Pittsburgh who was treated for traumatic brain injury. Their short biographies are heart-wrenching, immediately evoking empathy for their situation.

The 13 men who have been chosen to participate in the program are roaming the streets of Austin in T-shirts that say "I am a 4G hotspot." The campaign has drawn ire from some who claim it's dehumanizing.

"The digital divide has never hit us over the head with a more blunt display of unselfconscious gall," said ReadWriteWeb's Jon Mitchell who also wonders why their T-shirts say "I am a hotspot." Mitchell cited Content Magazine editor Erin Kissane's tweet, "Last thought before sleeping: the difference between 'I'm running a hotspot' and 'I am a hotspot' is a difference that matters."

"We are not selling anything. There is no brand involved. There is no commercial benefit whatsoever," BBH Labs responded to the criticism in a blog post. The problem is they are selling and branding something: their company. Not to mention, the company's current project "Underheard in NY." BBH Labs used that project to segue to the "Homeless Hotspots" campaign.

In a blog post on March 6, BBH Labs compared "Homeless Hotspots" with street newspapers, like San Francisco's Street Sheet or New York City's Street News. That analogy is troublesome because street newspapers serve to advocate the plight of homeless people by enabling them to work.

Typically, street newspapers are staffed by homeless people and report on topics that are relevant to their struggle. The newspapers are then distributed for free to the homeless, who can sell them on the streets in exchange for a donation. Using a human being as an Internet connection for a festival is not quite the same thing.

BBH Labs did admit their analogy was ill-conceived.

"The biggest criticism (which we agree with actually) is that Street Newspapers allow for content creation by the homeless (we encourage those to research this a bit more as it certainly does not work exactly as you would assume)," the BBH Labs said in a statement.

It's not just the lack of meaningful content that is bothersome. The "Homeless Hotspot" campaign turns these 13 men into a social experiment with apparently little merit.

"It was an honest attempt to help, but the chosen priorities left it with all model and no substance," said Mitchell.

This post was originally published on's Tech Talk blog.