The Ethics Verdict on the Homeless Hotspot Project

BBH Labs, the innovation unit of the international marketing agency BBH, hired members of the Austin, Texas homeless population to walk around carrying mobile Wi-Fi devices, offering high-speed Internet access in exchange for donations. Thirteen volunteers from a homeless shelter were hooked up to the devices, given business cards and put in shirts with messages that designated them as human connections. “I’m Rudolph, a 4G Hotspot” read the label on the homeless man on the New York Post’s front page with the lead, “HOT BUMS!

The Walking Hotspots—now there’s a new horror series for AMC when they run out of zombies— were told to go to the most densely packed areas of the South by Southwest high-tech festival in Austin, Texas, where the technology trend-devouring conventioners often overwhelm the cellular networks with their smart phones. Attendees were told they could go up to a Homeless Hotspot and log on to his 4G network using the number on his T-shirt. A two-dollar contribution to the homeless man was the suggested payment for 15 minutes of service. BBH Labs paid  the wired-up homeless $20 a day, and they were also able to keep whatever customers donated.

What BBH called its “charitable  experiment” ended yesterday with the conference, and with all participants seemingly thrilled. The “Homeless Hotspot” gimmick got nationwide publicity, thirteen homeless men made some money, and conference participants got great connectivity…so why were so many people upset?

The outrage stemmed from a sense that the homeless men were being exploited. “This is my worry,” wrote tech blogger Tim Carmody, “the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms. So long as it can prove that the real problem with homelessness is that it doesn’t provide a service. Where the men involved aren’t even able to tell their own stories to the world, before they’re doubly used: first by the…attendees with their smartphones, and then by the marketing firm who will sell their story as a case study or TV show pitch, or to a company looking for a new advertising opportunity at next year’s [tech expo]. Where people really are turned into platforms to be “optimized” and “validated.”

At the Washington Post website, faith writer Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite wrote,

“So many homeless, and such a need in today’s society for fast Internet access–put them together and what have you got? What you’ve got is a dangerously new low in degrading the human being down to the level of a listening post.”

Is the Homeless Hotspots project unethical?

It is certainly a challenging subject for ethical analysis, and ethical analysis is what is needed rather than emotional reflex. Clearly, much of the criticism arises from “the Ick Factor,” when something that is strange and unexpected just seems unethical though defining exactly what’s unethical about it may prove difficult. Yes, it is a strange idea, but strange isn’t unethical, and yes, it is a publicity gimmick, but seeking publicity isn’t unethical either. If Homeless Hotspots are to be found unethical, the verdict must be based on harmful or unfair exploitation. This is a common issue on Ethics Alarms, and a gray one. My position has been split between disapproving of the ethics of paying the vulnerable, gullible, sick or needy to humiliate or harm themselves for the entertainment of others, and defending individuals who allow themselves to be paid to do things that others protest as humiliating on their behalf. The distinction often comes down to informed consent.

Of William Hung, the ridiculously inept American Idol contestant whose gleefully toneless renditions of songs gave him a brief career as a camp novelty act, I wrote,

“The kind, respectful, and ethical response to amusingly hopeless performers like Hung is to try to make them see that they cannot do that to which they aspire, and not to derive enjoyment from their delusions. When we pay people to unwittingly surrender their dignity, we are deceiving them. Hung believes he is being rewarded because people like to hear him sing. He is really being rewarded because people want to use him as an object of ridicule. He hasn’t, to our knowledge, consented to that. Without his informed consent, Hung is being mistreated.”

Yet of the little people who hire themselves out as human discusses for absurdist sport, I said this:

“As outrages against human dignity and decency go, dwarf tossing is far down the list, below almost all of reality TV, for example. I have a hard time sympathizing with those who are offended by presumed offenses against parties who not only aren’t offended themselves, but who actually encourage and consent to the theoretically offensive conduct.  [A] critic argued that dwarf tossing “degrades an entire class as lesser people.” I’d say it distinguishes an entire class of people as smaller people, and that’s their unique advantage. If a dwarf or midget chooses to make his or her living as a sports mascot, or a little clown, or as R2D2, or as a projectile, that choice is only making use of a unique feature that other, larger people don’t have. That’s only “degrading” if one wants to regard it that way, and if a dwarf thinks so, fine: don’t be a projectile.

Clearly, the Homeless Hotspots are much closer to the willingly-tossed dwarfs than the clueless mocked singer. They are serving a real purpose, and for once, their homeless status is a marketable distinction. My greatest ethical qualm about the wired homeless is whether they have truly consented to the arrangement. Many homeless are mentally ill, addicted and otherwise incapable of informed consent: using one of these individuals would be unquestionably wrong. But BBH labs took only volunteers, and I presume that the mentally ill were not welcome—the image that comes to mind is the “Seinfeld” episode in which Kramer and Newman started a business that employed homeless men to pull a rickshaw through Times Square, with unfortunate results. Can we fairly say there was legitimate consent from the Austin recruits?

Not so fast, now. Money, in sufficient amounts, is itself coercion. Offer enough, and a desperate man may sell his dignity and more—a kidney, a child, or worse. Many reality shows are the equivalent of paying desperate drunks to dance in a saloon: “Fear Factor” will give you a fortune if you eat enough bugs, drink enough donkey semen and let yourself be buried in elephant dung. Walking around wearing a T-shirt that describes oneself as “a 4G Hotspot” hardly seems comparable. It’s a job. Isn’t it? And isn’t it more dignified than the alternative, which would be begging?

It seems peculiar  that hiring homeless for this purpose is condemned, while hiring a college student or a cheerleader in a bikini would have never made the New York Post at all, much less its front page. While driving through Manhattan yesterday, I saw someone in a Woody costume (the cowboy from “Toy Story”) handing out handbills. Now that seems much worse to me than being a human hotspot. When I ran a health fair company, I was told of one of our health fairs had a young man promoting the colorectal screening by wearing…a bowel movement costume.  I guarantee you he was less popular than the homeless men in Austin.

If we are to find the Homeless Hotspot project unethical, there must be an ethical principle that is being violated. Is it unfair? I don’t see how; the men are not brimming over with job qualifications. It’s an opportunity. Is it disrespectful? How, if hiring a college student would be perfectly acceptable? Is it coercive? The men volunteered! Deceptive? No. Cruel? How can it be called cruel? The homeless were given a chance to break their sad routine, make some money, and interact with people who normally ignore them. They were trusted and, as one Hotspot said, he got a free shirt.

In situations where the popular assessment of conduct seems to be at odds with the facts, the question to ask in any ethical analysis is “What’s really going on here?” In a follow-up post to her original lament, I think Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite gives us the answer. She wrote:

“I still believe that treating a homeless person as a 4G Internet site is degrading to them, but the overarching issue must be considered within a failure of social policy on a huge number of levels. Homelessness is the product of many social policy failures relating to joblessness in a slow economic recovery, the housing debacle, cuts in programs for addiction recovery and the failure to treat the post-traumatic stress disorder of many of our returning veterans.”

In short, paying the homeless to serve as a PR gimmick and as mobile 4G connections for affluent convention attendees would not be seen as degrading by Thistlethwaite if it didn’t seem so irrelevant to solving their real problems. That is really a different issue, however, and BBH shouldn’t be attacked because its gimmick doesn’t address the homelessness problem in American society. The advertisers still did far more for those 13 homeless men than 99.9 per cent of America does for any homeless during a typical day, and the fact that the rest of us are failing our human obligations doesn’t make them appropriate scapegoats.

The ethics verdict on the Homeless Hotspot stunt is that it was strange but ethical, and if the buzz surrounding it causes us to look at the larger societal problem of homelessness, it may even have beneficial, if unplanned, consequences.

22 thoughts on “The Ethics Verdict on the Homeless Hotspot Project

  1. I initially responded with “ick”, before realizing the marketing stunt was beneficial to everyone involved and that the work was no less degrading than a lot of common jobs. However, a wage of $20 a day for a job that relies on tips in an experimental market does seem exploitative to me, even disregarding the fact that the participants are homeless.

    • The company also provided the equipment to make those tips. In many business structures, the employee would pay the company for the ability to make money, not the other way around.

      • Exploitive pay how, exactly? The HH’s were given $20 a day, plus a %50 bonus at the end. They collected 2 bucks per 15 minutes of use, at least—it was a suggested donation, but there was no record of the homeless being stiffed. They were generally unhirable, and were in fact not seeking jobs. They have no job skills. They were volunteers, and could have opted to work without pay….and might have just for the free shirt. Their alternative was begging. They were not subject to minimum wage laws. Do you consider giving charity to be “exploitive” if it doesn’t amount to a living wage? Calling such an arrangement exploitive strains credulity and common sense. If the stunt had cost more, it just wouldn’t have happened, that’s all. I don’t see how anyone can make this argument with a straight face.

        • I think your comment is the heart of it, Jack. Their alternative was begging. To me that means they really have no choices. They can’t really enter into an agreement by choice when they have no other choice. It is the Ick factor. On a continent as rich as North America every citizen should have the opportunity for happiness. For that to happen, they need to have a minimum standard of living which allows them to make choices. I think most people agree on that. The problem comes when we try to define minimum standard. What is essential to me is not necessarily essential to you. But if we take this instance, these homeless people working for $20.00 a day (let’s say they work 7 days a week since they have nowhere else to go anyway) and allow a generous 4 weeks in each month, plus 50% leaves them still under $1000.00 before taxes which, I assume, they will need to pay with these new jobs. Roll that out over the long term whereby the Company will eventually have to make money so the tips will likely need to become a user fee, reducing the salary. For me, the minimum standard would include a roof and food which, where I live, would not be covered. We can discuss political positions and social strategies until the cows come home but the bottom line for me is that people should be paid enought for work to feed and house themselves. We need to address that. It is impossible to make or even think about choices if all your time today is spent worrying about how you are going to feed your family tomorrow. Life becomes one crisis after another. I would rather be a 4G Hotspot than beg too but if I had to do either, I would feel devalued. I would definitely not feel like I was making a choice because my choice would be neither of those. It also wouldn’t be to work as a waitress for under minimum wage. That, I will never understand. It’s Ick because it may not be unethical in the society we have built but it should be unethical. Ick. Ick. Ick!

          • You’d feel devalued because you weren’t working and living on the street. I’m not even sure I agree with the passive voice. The one doing the de-valuing is the homeless person, if he or she has made choices that made him or her unemployable. We provide shelters for the homeless that they often choose not to use; they have access to emergency food rations as well. What more would you have society owe to those who don’t work but can, or who incapacitate themselves? Many people are homeless for brief periods, but move heaven and earth to get out of that state. And if they don’t? Are you really saying that we owe a living wage to people who don’t or can’t work for it?

            This was a temporary job for a few hours over a few days. Calculations of what it would bring over a year are pointless—the job would never be constructed the same way—it would require minimum wage.

            Personally, I’d rather be a hot spot than wait on tables any day.

  2. I knew some people would find it degrading, but I don’t think it is. I also don’t think the wages are unfair. I would have liked the charges to be fixed (instead of the pay-as-you like). If you look at what waiters and waitresses are paid ($2-3/hour), the $20/day doesn’t look out of line. The location and timing seem ideal to get people to use the service and hey, its a job. As has been said, this is not nearly as degrading as many such low-end marketing jobs (the Little Caesar’s mascot holding up the $5 Hot and Ready sign in 100 ºF heat comes to mind).

    There are a lot of jobs out there and few of them are glamorous. Many are downright nasty, but they need to be done. Do you know what it is like to snake out clogged septic lines when it is 105 ºF? It isn’t fun, but it is a job and a necessary one. I didn’t find it enjoyable, but I am thankful for the people that do. If you think this job is degrading, or they should be paying these people more, remember this when you complain about how much you have to pay your roofer, or the HVAC guy fixing your AC on the fourth of July weekend.

    One of the hardest things about trying to get a job when you are jobless (or homeless) is the lack of work history. If you haven’t had a job lately, people are reluctant to hire you. This is a job that gives people some money. More importantly, it gives them a recent job history and (hopefully) a reference from a recent employer.

    • Trust me any plumber or HVAC guy working on a holiday is making a lot more money then $20.00 a day. As they should be.

      I once had a lawyer complain about what we charged him to snake his main sewer. He said that he was a lawyer and that even he didnt charge that much an hour. His wife very quickly spoke up and said ‘Well maybe you should have become a plumber”. lol

  3. I think what people are reacting to the most was that a company sponsored this initiative. (though, I don’t see the company’s name on the t-shirt).

    The window for which this is viewed is that these guys were recruited as employees. I think that’s wrong.

    The proper window (in my opinion) is to view these guys as being given start-up capital as entrepreneurs.

    No one thinks the guy selling fruit at the intersection is being exploited. The guy washing your windshield at the stop light. Or the guy who sets up a shoe polish booth in the public square.

  4. Yes, I am really saying we owe a living wage to everyone that is working. What we owe those that “cant or won’t work” in your definition is not relevant to the question I don’t think. These homeless men were working.

    • So, everyone who works gets a living wage. What if they can only work 2 hours a day, from home, in a cottage in the middle of yellowstone park. They deserve a living wage as well, right? Your delineations do not work. Not all work is worth a living wage.

        • That’s a weird statement. Part time jobs. One time jobs. Theater ushers were worth having, but they weren’t worth minimum wage. There are lots of jobs that need doing but that can’t justify the mandated expense. That’s why unemployment tends to go up when the Minimum Wage is raised.

          • Maybe weird to you but not to me. Theatre ushers were never worth having. Perfect example of being underpaid for work that didn’t need doing. If the job is worth doing and yet they cannot pay a living wage, then they need to rethink their strategy and possibly their definition of “worth doing”. If the work doesn’t get done is there less profit? How much less? Would it be enough to close them? Would they be unable to service customers and be forced to close without the work being done? If so, I’d say it is work worth paying a living wage for and if they can’t, then they need to close their dooors – not take a free ride on the back of their worker. Because the expense could not be justified does not mean the worker should be starving or homeless. I am not even going to address part time jobs because if this is weird to you, my opinion on that would likely quickly push me from weird to crazy in your mind. I don’t mind sitting in either place though so no worries.

            • To clarify my position on ushers, eventhough I feel they were never needed, if the theatre felt they needed ushers then, of course, their work was “worth minimum wage”. I find it weird that you would think there was work that was “not worth minimum wage”. Not sure how you would define that because minimum wage by definition should be the minimum paid for work. Of course, minimum wage and a living wage are not the same thing anyway.

              • You find it hard to understand that some jobs have value, but not enough value to pay them more that they are worth? Of course movie ushers were useful. The helped late-comers find seats without disrupting the movie. They kept the theater quiet, and threw out talkers. Today they would stop people from texting and using their phones. It improved the experience, and thus the service. Why do you think there are theater ushers? (Hint: they mostly are volunteers. But every theater needs them) Your thinking on this topic is bewildering.

                The mobile hot spots is a perfect example. It was worth doing, but not at a greater cost. It a living of even minimum wage had been imposed on it, then it wouldn’t have happened at all. That wouldn’t mean “it wasn’t worth doing” at all. It would mean it wasn’t worth what it would cost, given available resources and the market involved.

                • I understand you think there are jobs worthy of doing that are not worth paying a living wage but I don’t agree. It doesn’t matter what the job is – septic tank repair to COO of a fortune 500 – if it needs doing, then it should be paid a living wage. Period. The worker doing the job should not have to starve because someone decided what they do has little value. If it has that little value then make a machine to do it or drop the job – don’t expect someone to work it and starve. Why should they have to? So people who have no respect for others and show up late can have help to find their seat? So they are late and get the benefit of escourted service? Shut the doors when the lights go down and give them a schedule of upcoming shows so they can attend at an alternate time. That way all the people on time are not disrupted for free. The actors aren’t late, the rest of the audience wasn’t late and it isn’t that hard to be on time.

                  I didn’t say Ushers weren’t useful, I was agreeing with you that the benefit they brought was never worth a living wage – either to the theatre owner or the attendees. Therefore, there was no “job”. Ushers should have been volunteer all along. Volunteers are often more reliable than workers. I have no problem with anyone volunteering any or all of their time to do any job they want. My problem is when you don’t pay them enough to live and call it work. My second problem is justifying that by the “available resources and market involved”. Our fundamental difference of opinion lies there.

                  • I don’t think I’ll ever see the “logic”. Some jobs aren’t worth a living wage. Artists, for example. If you pay someone more than their work’s value, that’s charity. Do you say the same for products? If I sell dirt balls, should you be forced to make that job a livable one for me? Who decides what service or product is worth having, if not the market? What if I want to do something that doesn’t pay a living wage—again, like art. How are you to say I can’t do that…or that it’s not worth doing?

                    You’re really talking fantasy world justice, not fairness or ethics. Sometimes it takes three jobs to make a living. That doesn’t mean they are all not worth doing. Should someone who does a job badly make a living wage? Why?

                    I coordinate volunteers, and believe me, volunteers are NOT more reliable than paid staff. NONONONO.

  5. I honestly don’t see what the fuss is about. A company offered some guys without jobs a chance to earn some money while, 1) providing a service, 2) getting their company some good publicity, 3) providing them with clean clothes! and, 4) giving them an excellent opportunity to network with people who might just be hiring.

    Where is the degradation in this? Was the once common “sandwich man” advertiser- or the present day costumed clowns for tax services- degraded? When I had a job that took me all over Houston, I had a advertisement on my back window for an insurance firm that made me a little extra when I was hard up for case. Did I feel degraded? No!

    Honest work is not degrading. Quite the contrary. It’s sucking up to some disdainful government clerk for a handout that pushes your face in the mud… unless you have no self-respect or worki ethic to begin with.

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