An Internet Hot Spot’s Cold Response: When Calling Something an ‘Experiment’ is no Safeguard from Critics

Mar 19, 2012

In one of the early scenes from the dystopian 70s cult classic Soylent Green the camera shows a largely homeless and grotesquely overpopulated New York City street whose riotous masses are cleared with dump trucks – called scoops – treated more like rubbish than people. And in later scenes the audience learns not only is prostitution legal, but the women that come with the little remaining luxury property that’s left are called “furniture.” Nice.

If only treating people like objects was confined to Charlton Heston-starring science fiction.

Instead, the recent marketing misstep by BBH Labs, the innovation arm of the international marketing agency BBH, has brought us all a notch lower on the “soylent slide.” Earlier this week, at the annual tech-fest better known as the SXSW technology conference, BBH Labs hired 13 volunteer homeless people to stand in as human mobile hot spots. Carrying Wi-Fi devices and wearing t-shirts that read: “I’m [name] a 4G Hotspot,” the volunteers were enlisted to help prevent the overload of the existing mobile network, a common occurrence at tech-crowded events. It was also intended as a conversation starter – homeless workers would have an opportunity to speak with mobile users about their plight and discuss America’s homeless problem. And who knows, maybe a chance encounter would aid their employment and housing prospects?

In fact, Saneel Radia, the director of innovation at BBH Labs, who was quoted in a New York Times story about the Austin, Texas event, seemed utterly surprised by the public backlash.

“We saw it as a means to raise awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society and talk to people,” he said. “The hot spot is a way for them to tell their story.”

Somehow I think that positive outcome is unlikely, especially when you start with turning homeless people into an awkward marketing ploy while treating them like glorified telephone poles –albeit telephone poles with enough of a human voice to request that their 4G “customers” consider a donation to help them survive. While it’s true that these unlucky 13 did volunteer for their services and were paid for their efforts (more on that later), the program speaks to the worst kind of human exploitation. It’s one thing to know your actions are exploitative and nevertheless carry them out based on some flawed “greater good” logic, but it’s another level entirely when you’re oblivious to that cruelty.

The marketing carelessness also highlights another disturbing trend related to technology, a term that Chris Klauda, a vice president at D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a travel and hospitality market research company calls, “isolated togetherness” – people in close physical spaces, but remaining disconnected from the “real world” and are instead solely focused on the goings on in their virtual worlds via their smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc.

As the technology through which we all communicate continues to advance, becoming more immersive, digitally interactive, and mobile, it’s critical we – not as public relations professionals but as moral, caring, and empathetic members of the human race – remember that treating people with respect isn’t just about asking for someone’s assistance or paying them for their efforts in some endeavor. Nor does calling a marketing misfire a “charitable experiment,” excuse BBH Labs from their decision. That kind of qualified and dare I say bullsh*t language serves no one. In fact, it’s the kind of language PR professionals rely on so often that gives our industry a bad reputation and further fans the flames of the media mess at the heart of this blog post.

For their efforts the 13 volunteers, selected from the Front Steps homeless shelter, earned themselves free t-shirts, $20 a day (which based on an 8-hour work day amounts to $2.50 an hour or about the same legal minimum wage in 1976, and $4.75 below today’s legal minimum), and the opportunity to collect some extra donations.

But if you ask me, and the many others who were similarly disturbed by this story, I think they all got a lot less than they bargained for. Consider this “charitable experiment” a dismal failure, and hopefully one that will not be re-dressed and re-hashed for the next South by Southwest technology conference.

They may not have been called furniture as in Soylent Green, but these 13 volunteers definitely served as a 2012 appliance.

Shame on us all.

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