Homeless Hotspots : Too far?

by Nick on March 14, 2012

I’m a really big fan of innovative marketing – like a really, REALLY big fan.  You want to get a tattoo on your forehead to advertise some wing joint that will probably be out of business in a year, go for it.  You want to sell naming rights to your dog, feel free.  You want to paint “Eat at Joe’s” on the side of your house for a few bucks a month, fine.  It’s your forehead, your dog’s name and your house – do what you want (although I’d highly advise against the tattoo thing…).

But then I saw this article over at CNN.  The gist of the article is that there’s a marketing campaign involving homeless people that’s called “Homeless Hotspots.”  Apparently a bunch of homeless folks were given 4G hotspots and signs or t-shirts reading “I’m [Melvin], a 4G hotspot.”  People can then pay a “suggested donation” to access the 4G hotspot.  The homeless make some money, the company gets some press …. and every one’s happy?  Well not everyone… apparently there’s some pretty serious backlash. 

And even I, the King of Capitalism, am torn about this one.  (If you’re wondering, the pic is not an actual image of me, but just what I picture myself looking like pondering the issue…haha)

The Good

  • It’s making a bunch of people think of homelessness who may not have otherwise had it on their mind;
  • The homeless participants are happy to make a few bucks and have an opportunity to clean up (they signed up voluntarily after all, presumably);
  • Maybe this campaign will help push some of the homeless participants to better housing and employment situations.

The Bad

  • I’m not sure that each of the homeless folks would have volunteered for this if they weren’t in such a tough spot (then again, I assume college kids would sign up by the thousands…I know I would have… still might if the price is right…)?
  • The name.  Homeless Hotspots – it’s dehumanizing.  They’re Homeless People, right?  A mi no me gusta that at all.  I know it’s “marketing talk,” but I’m sure they could have come up with something else just as creative – i.e. Hotspots for the Homeless – less dehumanizing while keeping the alliteration and putting the focus on trying to do good to help the homeless.  If I could come up with something that would likely get the same result in the 30 seconds of typing this bullet point, surely they could do better with more time…

There’s more good and bad for sure, but these are the main ones that popped into my mind as most relevant.  Hmmm….

My Bottom Line
I hate to poo poo creative marketing campaigns, but I ultimately have to give it a thumbs down. 

I appreciate the stated good (helping the homeless through creative partnership) but just can’t get past the name.  This could have been a slam dunk fantastic idea if it were done more gracefully.  So ultimately I say nice try but “swing and a miss.”  Maybe next time they’ll “step away from the board room” and give me a holler for some good-old-fashioned constructive criticism, haha!  

Questions for You:

  • Am I, the King of Capitalism, being too sensitive? 
  • If it’s really just the name that’s the problem then should I even care?
  • Are they taking advantage of a stronger bargaining position for commercial advantage? 
  • Does it feel creepy to you, too?

Finally, feel free to trash me as too sensitive in the comments, although I prefer people to blindly follow me, haha… that gets you far on this blog!  😉  Just kidding – I can take it and you won’t be banished, no matter how much you love sleep away camp…

UPDATE:  Thanks to a late-night comment on yesterday’s post, I had an additional benefit of checking out Christopher’s thoughts on the program over at This and That and the MBA.  Looks like I’m alone in thinking it was a good idea that wasn’t executed very well… I guess I’m the only one who thinks the name was a bit tasteless… soo much for blindly following me… 🙁

Until next time, put your credit card down and slowly step away from the mall!

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Image: farconville / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Money Infant March 14, 2012 at 10:49 am

I don't have a problem with it at all. The only thing I would add is that I hope they are carefully screening their new homeless employees because their are definitely things I wouldn't want to be a contributor to.
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WorkSaveLive March 14, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I'll follow blindly, Nick!

Do you really have to point out the fact that they're homeless? I'm pretty sure we'd have been able to grasp that by looking at them.

It is very clever though and a good idea. I like the fact that they can help somebody…but I think it's tasteless that they want gain out of it. Can't you just help them for the sake of helping them?
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Dave @ DebtBlackHole March 14, 2012 at 12:26 pm

If the homeless people agreed to participate, what's the big deal? They got some money they wouldn't have otherwise. No one FORCED them to be a Homeless Hotspot.

Insensitive…perhaps. But creating controversy is a risky business…that company couldn't have BOUGHT the kind of advertising they're getting right now for FREE. The risk is they infuriate too many people, but chances are most people don't care that much.

In the end- the got what they wanted…attention!

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addvodka March 14, 2012 at 1:59 pm

That's interesting. I'm not entirely sure how i feel about it, but I think that they probably paid the homeless people and they weren't coerced into being in the commercial. It definitely caught the consumers eye, obviously!
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MoneySmartGuides March 15, 2012 at 12:59 am

I don't have an issue with it, but I can see where you are coming from with the name. It does have a certain ring to it as is.
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Nick March 15, 2012 at 3:12 am

Yeah, you know I hope and assume they did everything on the up and up. I think the name really got me going for a bit. I also bet that they could have gotten the same or better press if they just let the program do the talking. Eventually someone would have noticed/reported that they're employing homeless people and the press would have been amazing.
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Nick March 15, 2012 at 3:13 am

Haha! Nice! I was hoping for at least one!

Funny you mention that – like my response to Money Infant, I think it could have been even better for them if they let the program do the talking.
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Nick March 15, 2012 at 3:14 am

I hear ya, Dave. I don't disagree with you, really. I think the name could have been done much better – it sure did get them attention though. And if the participants are happy, I guess I'm not really in any position to complain…
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Nick March 15, 2012 at 3:15 am

It was really tough for me, too, Daisy. I love the idea of helping the homeless earn money and don't mind them capitalizing on it. But I thought the way the program was marketed used homeless people as "props" and the name was a bit insensitive… Definitely a successful program though. Can't argue with that.
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Nick March 15, 2012 at 3:17 am

Yeah, I'm pretty sure if it were marketed without a name – just as "mobile hotspots" or even something like "Hotspots to Help the Homeless" or whatever, I wouldn't have taken any issue with it. 🙂
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Frugal Fries March 15, 2012 at 4:01 am

I have no qualms with the ethical side of this kind of setup–it's mutually beneficial for everyone involved. I agree the name is a bit insensitive though. Wouldn't it be a million times cooler if they called them 'Hotspots for Adventurers' or 'Traveler's Hotspots' or 'Wandering Hotspots'?

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tlpinspw March 15, 2012 at 12:42 pm

I live in Austin. You see homeless people pan-handling every day of the week at intersections. Many Austinites happily shell over cash. But I think in this instance the line was crossed. This was an effort to tap people's emotions and advertise at the same time. That is what marketing does, but it doesn't always exploit the homeless to do so.
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Nick March 15, 2012 at 3:08 pm

I hear ya, Frugal Fries. I think we're on the same page, especially with the name. I wonder how much time they spent coming up with "Homeless Hotspots." It sure could have been done with a little more grace…
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Nick March 15, 2012 at 3:23 pm

It's definitely too bad that a little more thought wasn't put into the "image" of the program. They had an opportunity to do a lot of good stuff with grace. I do think the homeless are getting benefits from making some money though and getting to work a bit. I hope it's a long-term thing though and it's not just a quick few bucks and then onto the next marketing plan…
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Thad @ Thad Thoughts March 15, 2012 at 6:29 pm

Of all the coincidences, our company had a guest speaker today. His name is Alan Graham, and he is the founder of Austin's Mobile Loaves and Fishes (our company has volunteered 3 or 4 times with MLF). He brought up the issue of the Homeless Hotspots and said he personally knows the guys who were the hotspots. He said they had a blast…loved it…found great worth in being a part of the program in fact, and made no small amount of money.

The MLF had a blog post today about this issue at http://mlf.org/2012/03/15/on-the-humanity-of-home

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Emily March 16, 2012 at 3:59 am

I listened to an interview with the founder of Homeless Hotspots and an interview with a participant. They seemed excited and positive about the program. The founder said it's modeled after the newspaper/flyers that homeless people used to sell, but sort of updated for the internet age. The homeless participant said everyone who participated it had a good time. One thing I hadn't thought about was that (according to the founder) the social interactions that the participants have with people who want to use the wireless is important for their day-to-day well-being. And the guy who was interviewed said he had only been homeless himself for a few months. The economic downturn has really broadened the scope of the homeless population.

I know it sounds like a weird idea, which is why I was happy to hear those interviews instead of just hype by non-involved media people.
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