SXSW's Human Hotspot Problem

A blog about business and economics.
March 13 2012 9:01 AM

SXSW's Human Hotspot Problem

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BBH Labs image.

Year after year I keep not getting to go to South by Southwest (panel organizers, take note!), but if you follow basically any writers on Twitter you'll have already heard about this fiasco:

BBH Labs, the innovation unit of the international marketing agency BBH, outfitted 13 volunteers from a homeless shelter with the devices, business cards and T-shirts bearing their names: “I’m Clarence, a 4G Hotspot.” They were told to go to the most densely packed areas of the conference, which has become a magnet for those who want to chase the latest in technology trends.
The smartphone-toting, social-networking crowds often overwhelm cellular networks in the area, creating a market that BBH Labs hoped to serve with the “Homeless Hotspots” project, which it called a “charitable experiment.” It paid each participant $20 a day, and they were also able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.
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Now the general idea of PR stunts is to generate positive publicity, which this massively failed to do. However, the negative reaction to this sort of thing always drives the more literal-minded of us slightly crazy. Think about all the companies involved in one way or another in SXSW who did absolutely nothing at all for Austin's homeless population. How much condemnation did they get? None. BBH's stunt here offends our sense of human dignity, but the real offense is that people were languishing in such poor conditions that they would find this to be an attractive job offer. The sin they're being punished for is less any harm they've done to homeless people than the way they broke decorum by shoving the reality of human misery amid material plenty into the faces of convention-goers. The polite thing to do is to let suffering take place offstage and unremarked-upon.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.