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Ad agency stirs controversy for using homeless people as wireless hotspots at SXSW

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This year at SXSW in Austin, you may happen to come across a bedraggled, middle-aged homeless man wearing a T-shirt that said, "I'm _______, a 4G hotspot." If your first inclination was to give this poor soul a bagel or a coupla bucks rather than texting the number on his belly for wireless service, then you, sir, are a bleeding-heart liberal/self-righteous do-gooder. That's because the men were recruited as part of "Homeless Hotspots," a campaign spearheaded by marketing firm BBH that has already caught more flak from SXSW hipsters than the latest She & Him release. 

According to Buzzfeed, Homeless Hotspots was the brainchild of Saneel Radia, head of innovation at the New York-based marketing firm, which partnered with Austin homeless-advocacy group Front Steps on the project. Although Radia stresses that the money donated for wireless access goes directly to the homeless hotspots themselves (ick, I can't even type that without feeling squeamish), he says that he understands why people might be uncomfortable with the campaign. "The worry is that people are suddenly just hardware," he says, "but frankly I wouldn't have done this if I didn't believe otherwise. We're very open to the criticism," he added.

Well, that's good that you're open to the criticism, Saneel, because over the next few days, you guys will be getting it from all ends. While I don't doubt that your intentions were good (or, at least, as good as the intentions of a marketing firm can possibly be), if the concern over being perceived as using homeless people as "hardware" crosses your mind just once during the brainstorming process, it's probably best to take your ideas in a different direction. On the other hand, Melvin, one of the homeless individuals recruited by BBH, told Buzzfeed the following about his own experience with the campaign, so at least there's a silver lining to this PR nightmare cloud:

"I would say that these people are trying to help the homeless, and increase awareness. They're trying not to put us in a situation where we're stereotyped. That's a good side of it, too — we get to talk to people. Maybe give them a different perception of what homeless is like."