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BBH Labs’ Innovative SXSW ‘Homeless Hotspots’ Program Stirs Controversy

An innovative program in which homeless vendors sell wireless internet access to attendees of a popular Texas festival has stirred up considerable controversy.

The New York Daily News reports that BBH Labs, the global innovation unit of the British advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, has introduced the ‘Homeless Hotspots’ program at this year’s South by Southwest festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. According to BBH Labs, the “charitable experiment” is meant to help homeless individuals earn money by equipping them with MiFi devices and T-shirts that identify them as “human 4G hotspots” from which SXSW attendees can purchase wireless service. The vendors get to keep all proceeds.

The program, which was created in partnership with Austin’s Front Steps Shelter, has generated a storm of criticism from people who thought it was a joke or inhumane.

“What a shameful, hideous, patronising, dehumanising idea,” British brand strategist Luke Scheybeler tweeted.

“This must be a headline from The Onion,” tweeted Kelly McCormick, referring to a popular satirical newspaper.

But the homeless people empowered by the program seem to be very supportive of it.

“Our clients were so excited about it,” Front Steps official Mitchell Gibbons told the Daily News. “I know there are a lot of negative things being printed, but if you ask any of our clients, they’d tell you this project was a success.”

Gibbons told the paper that one homeless vendor said this of his customers: “These are the same people, if I were not participating in this program, who would walk past me and never stop to talk to me. But because I’m participating in this program… they’re interested in who I am. This wouldn’t happen any other way.”

BBH Labs Director of Innovation Saneel Radia wrote that the program is not a branding stunt, but rather an attempt at altruism:

“Obviously, there’s an insane amount of chatter about this, which although certainly villianizes us, in many ways is very good for the homeless people we’re trying to help: homelessness is actually a subject being discussed at SXSW and these people are no longer invisible. We are not selling anything. There is no brand involved. There is no commercial benefit whatsoever.”

In the past, BBH Labs has demonstrated its desire to help the homeless by working with them on innovative projects to improve their lives, so there is little or no reason to doubt that Radia is telling the truth.

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