The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of the BBH Homeless Controversy

Photo by HeadOvMetal

By now you have probably seen the controversy over the BBH Labs viral marketing campaign at SxSW, which paid members of Austin’s homeless community $20-$50 a day to serve as walking 4G hotspots. Make no bones about it, the campaign could have been much more successful if the strategy had included education or fundraising to combat homelessness.

Many critics saw the effort as exploitative, while others (including me) see positive benefits from the campaign, including putting the issue of homelessness at the forefront of the news. Here’s a breakdown of the good, the bad, and the ugly about BBH’s homeless marketing effort:

The Good

Like or hate this campaign, it did something that most homeless nonprofits and shelters fail to do regularly. BBH thrust the issue of homelessness to the top of the world’s media headlines.

There’s a reason why my friend Mark Horvath’s nonprofit combating homelessness is called Invisible People. Its because  as a society, we avoid homelessness, preferring to have our governments gather up those without homes and ship them across township lines. When push comes to shove, the last thing we do is address the matter with real solutions, particularly in a time of economic distress.

The Bad

I’m not one of those people who feel paying homeless people the minimum wage to wear a T-shirt in a certain geographic area for 6 hours is exploitative. Having worked with the homeless before, I know most of these people are grateful for any kind of work, and this is pretty light duty. But what is bad is that BBH deployed this campaign without any thought for the actual plight of the homeless.

Giving homeless people a day’s pay and then garnering a world of media attention using them as a controversial touchpoint is unacceptable. Keep in mind, the University of Texas is right next door, and these able college kids would have gladly dunned the same T-shirts. The strategic decision to use homeless people was exploitative in nature.

If you’re going to market against a societal issue, you had better integrate cause marketing and corporate social responsibility initiatives. Simply affiliating with a cause that provides job training, shelter, or combats economic injustice would have gone miles to legitimize BBH’s effort. Instead we are given shades of Groupon’s 2011 Super Bowl gaffe with a marketing campaign that almost mocks the issue.

The Ugly

Perhaps the ugliest aspect of the BBH controversy is the criticisms being vetted by bloggers and media who clearly have no idea about the homeless issue. They cite giving homeless alcoholics and drug addicts money to feed their habits and other such nonsense.

Did you know that 1.6 million children in the United States are homeless? Forty two percent of these children are under the age of six. Did you know that 84% of homeless families are headed by a female? Did you know that 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness? These types of statistics stun, shock, and defy conventional public opinions on homelessness.

The BBH issue has right or wrongly exposed our ignorance about homelessness. As cause advocates, we should seize the moment to combat public misconceptions.

How You Can Help

One way is to continue the BBH conversation, and use it as a means to discuss the macro issue of homelessness. In addition, there are many ways to help the homeless, whether its serving in your local shelter or kitchen, advocating for more public service dollars to help the homeless, or simply donating to a nonprofit that combats homelessness. Please make a difference today.

The opinions expressed by Geoff Livingston in this post are his, and not Mightycause Global Corporation’s.