Clever! But Wrong: “Hoodies For Hobos”

Homeless advertisng

“Team ADD -A-BALL is proud to announce our new outreach program ‘Hoodies for Hobo’s’. All profits from sweatshirt and t-shirt sales go towards outfitting Seattle’s street people with some fresh gear. I will post a pic of every new bum we spruce up. Thanks everyone.”

—-Add-a-Ball owner Brad Johnsen, on his company’s Facebook page.

Yes, Brad, who casually refers to his walking billboards as “bums,” has what he sees as a perfect plan. Profits profits from all  T-shirt and apparel sales at Johnsen’s Seattle arcade will be used to outfit the city’s homeless “with some fresh gear,” all sporting the arcade’s name and logo. Everybody wins! He gets publicity and good will for this—wink, wink—“charity,” the homeless get spiffy new clothes, and he gets really cheap advertising.

So what if he robs the objects of his charity of their dignity, exploits them, and dehumanizes them into the equivalents of car bumpers? Hey, no plan is perfect! To his credit, sort of, Johnsen’s comments don’t exactly leave much room for doubts about his compassion and motives. “If it also encourages people to go play pinball and get drunk—all the better,” he says.

If he was interested in anything other than the cheap publicity…like, say, the welfare of the homeless, Johnsen would hand out clothes without the logo. I’m sure he wouldn’t understand why I say that. Or why paying the “bums’ who choose to wear the ones that advertise his business would be the ethical course, since it would compensate the homeless for their service and give them a sense of self-worth, rather than making them, in effect, unpaid sandwich-board wearers for the privilege of wearing a lousy hoodie.

I wonder how many people see nothing unethical Johnsen’s scheme. I’m a little afraid to find out.

[Addendum (4 PM 4/10/14): I should have mentioned in the original post that Kant would have agreed with me. This is a Categorical Imperative situation, using human beings as a means rather than an end: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”  The fact that the cynical ploy can be represented as a one that aims at clothing the homeless makes the label a little shaky, and I admit that the “Ick Factor” looms large here.]


Pointer:  Drudge

Facts: Vocative




43 thoughts on “Clever! But Wrong: “Hoodies For Hobos”

  1. In the same vein, that’s why I don’t buy clothing that advertises merchandise. I don’t like any retail product enough to pay them to then advertise for them. I know they can’t give it away but they also don’t offer it for product loyalty either.

  2. I think this falls squarely into the camp of more ethical vs unethical. It would be very nice if he gave away logo-free clothes. He’s not obligated to do so, because the homeless people aren’t obligated to take his donation.

    Based on your logic one could make the case that no charity is ethical unless it is totally anonymous. After all, suppose he used profits from sales to buy completely plain clothes for the homeless- he’s still advertising that he’s doing so, and he’s buying goodwill on the backs of the homeless people he’s clothing.

    And hey, didn’t you say that there’s nothing wrong with donors to universities wanting their name put on buildings? “Donors give for their reasons, not yours.” (Here:

    It’s not true charity when it’s done for self promotion, but just as the universities don’t HAVE to accept the new library if they aren’t willing to put the rich guys’ name on it, the homeless people don’t HAVE to take the T-shirts with the arcade logo. They are thinking people with agency, not helpless children being dressed by duplicitous caregivers and forced to act as billboards.

    • Yes. Buildings, however, are not human beings. I would not favor a plan where the givers of corporate scholarships required desperate students to tattoo the company logo on their faces, either. And that’s the proper analogy. Exploiting desperation. Buildings do not have dignity.

      • I think his point is, and I agree to it is that the reasonable outcomes here are: Warm human billboards, or cold proud people. I don’t think these people are being demeaned by logoed clothing, and I don’t think a facial tattoo is a fair comparison at all. We’re talking about easily removable clothing vs. a permanent body modification.

        We’ve already agreed that ‘charity’ acting as ‘advertising’ isn’t necessarily unethical, and now I think we’re arguing the scope. Is it unethical to hand out clothing with logos on it? We might disagree. Is it unethical to require a tattoo? Absolutely.

        • I agree with above. I don’t think it’s necessarily unethical. The homeless people are given a choice to wear the apparel or not. Even after they accept the apparel, they can scrape off or cover up the logo rather easily if they wish.

          Perhaps because so much apparel these days have logos or writing on them, I tend not to think of it as too big of a deal. We’ve all been branded. I wonder if Nike had handed out a bunch of T-shirts to the homeless with their checkmark logo on it would anyone have even cared? Is it that the advertised logo seems like a local place, and is not nearly as ubiquitous?

        • And making people choose between the two is unethical. This isn’t charity—it’s a contract of adhesion. There’s nothing charitable about it. If this guy could get bikini models to carry the logos for free, he wouldn’t bother with “the bums.” A quid pro quo when the quo has few options but to accept is exploiting weakness, not trying to assist it.

            • Just cover it with duct tape? Scrape the logo off? Wear it inside out? Black marker?

              I do agree that it isn’t really charitable…maybe, but I don’t see why it is unethical. I’m not sure if I were a business that I would want a bunch of homeless people wearing my logo. I would worry about the association, quite frankly. But since the Johnson guy doesn’t seem to be worried about it, and feels that he is getting something out of it, then it isn’t true charity. But so few things would qualify.

              So if the owner gave the homeless Nike shoes, and he wasn’t Nike, that would be ethical. However, if Nike gave the homeless Nike shoes, that would be unethical? Is that correct?

              • I think his comments give you the clue. He’d put clothes on cockroaches if it brought him business.

                Athletic shoes have logos…nothing unusual about that. What about Hoodies with political slogans on them, like “Defeat the Zionists”? Same analysis? A gift with a feature—strings attached– that a less desperate individual might feel free to refuse if they were less desperate is the ethics breakdown point.

                • I guess I’m still not seeing it. Most t-shirts and hoodies have logos/writings of some type on them too. If these homeless were nude, and it was freezing, and the owner was dangling some warm clothing in front of them, knowing full well that the person disagreed with the logo/writing on the clothing, and in fact, had commissioned it knowing that the person disagreed…then, in that unlikely scenario, I could perhaps see some ethics problems.

                  But I assume that isn’t the case here. They are already manufacturing the hoodies and t-shirts with the logos on them, they give some of the extra ones to the homeless, they get some community goodwill and advertising out of it, the homeless have an extra hoodie or -shirt to wear if they want. Seems like a win/win. I don’t see giving someone to wear or not as they wish as being inherently coercive, even if they are homeless.

            • Well I’ll give that to you, but if it’s the only clothing you have, and the alternative is not having it…. I don’t know. He’s still clothing homeless people. I just don’t see how someone is demeaned by a logo. Maybe I’m missing something. Are employers demeaning their employees by making hem wear a uniform? I mean, they have a choice between the uniform and employment.

          • Now you’re getting into attacking capitalism. Entry level jobs are shitty, too, but if you don’t take one you never get a job. Companies hire people with little to no experience, but if they could get phenominally qualified people to do the grunt work for the same wage they’d be dropping the fresh-faced grads in an instant. Young people take jobs that are crappy because that’s what is available.

          • Giving the clothing with logos is not as good as the truly charitable option of giving logo-free clothing. It is better than not giving clothing at all. In the vacuum of theoretical posturing you can say that it is an absolute wrong to hand out gifts with strings attached. In the real world, however…

            “It’s a utilitarian balancing, and on balance, society benefits.” -Jack Marshall

  3. Maybe a religious slogan like “Hallelujah I’m a bum” would work. I’m kinda tired of seeing 40 year old fit guys panhandling in front of the post office and hitting up young women for spare change.

  4. I am not sure. Our company has sponsored different events in our community (parades, rodeos, etc.). We paid money to do it, but it was to support the community we serve (but there was no deductible charitable donation). We handed out tote bags with our logo and phone number and the bag had a few other items in it (magnets and pens) with our logo.

    Eventually, people sought us out because they had seen others carrying the bags and they needed something to hold all of the kind of crap you pick up at those events. We made no pretense of being charitable; we were advertising; we were promoting ourselves. And, we were giving people something useful that might, if they ever needed us, have the information they needed sitting right there in front of them.

    Is it the charitable “pretense” here that makes you see this as unethical. Because, otherwise, it is like so many other promotional activities that are not ethically dubious (at least in my view).


    • But he’s really not pretending to be a charity- at least, he’s putting his motives right out front. He’s straight up saying he wants to increase awareness and, therefore, business. He’s just doing so by saying “Rather than buy a billboard, I’m going to make sure you see my logo WHILE seeing that more homeless people have access to more clothes!”

    • The distinction is one of attitude (intent). The attitude demonstrated is the one which some consider the root of all ethical failures, considering people as objects instead of as people. Mr. Johnson is not clothing these ‘hobos’ because they are people who need help, but instead because they are walking billboards he can use to advertise. Promotions that hand out ‘loot’ are different because they are run with the intent that the people who take the ‘loot’ are choosing of their own free will to advertise.

  5. Remember, Jack: We are all now in a new era of clarification on what is (and what is not) an “act of love.” The chant is, “Equality to the max!” And yet, a “max” implies that there are degrees, i.e., inequalities…it’s a dilemma. But never mind – just force equality, and everyone will be put in their place.

    • I wonder why forced equality always results in less of whatever is being forced to be equalized.
      Equal rights=fewer rights
      Equal access=less access
      Equal grades=grade inflation and less learning
      It’s sort of perverse how that works. One might even conclude that forced equality is a bad thing. It’s a puzzle.

      • I don’t wonder. I fume at the truth you point out. Of course it’s because the forcers are lying from the start. We don’t yet have the actual names Orwell used for the agencies, but functionally, we are getting closer to MiniLove, MiniPlenty etc. being reality, what with Holder’s DOJ, new Executive Orders increasing the power and reach of the EEOC, etc.

  6. I could be convinced by you all that this is really an example of me being overwhelmed by the Ick Factor. This is major Ick. I see the principle opening up the gate to horrible slippery slopes. I think society is NOT benefited by being made more callous through regarding the homeless as less than human, and I can see where this kind of exploitation is just a few turns from feeding a lodging the homeless so they’ll agree to be human guinea pigs—for the good of humanity. I think this is using human beings as a means to an end, where the humans involved have little choice in the matter.

    Just convinced myself that it’s unethical again. Keep trying.

    • Medical trials recruit desperate people to agree to be guinea pigs in exchange for the hope that they get in the group that’s getting the new treatment and that the treatment works. People stand on the sidewalk dressed as cartoon chickens and other mascots to entice you into a restaurant or store, and I’m betting if they weren’t desperate for the money that pays they’d pick a different occupation.

      The big difference, I think, is the idea that wearing a shirt with an ad on it makes the homeless seem somehow inhuman. If a passerby was unaware of the specific campaign, it’s going to look like any other donated shirt with a logo on it- like the dozens of shirts with various logos I have in my drawer, and the dozens more I’ve donated to charity over the years. If they ARE aware of the campaign, they’ll think “oh, that’s one of those shirts the arcade donated to the homeless shelter.”

      Do you think the panhandling guy somehow seems more homeless because you know who gave him the shirt he’s wearing?

        • So I’m teasing out the distinction. I would say that below a certain age (50?), we are all walking billboards for various companies, so people have a hard time seeing what the big deal is. That’s probably why you are getting such pushback.

          You impute a desperation to the homeless that I don’t feel is warranted in the clothing department at least. If they want a new shirt that has a logo on it, then they grab it. But if not, then they don’t. They will have other shirts, perhaps not new. But they won’t be naked. In Seattle, they probably won’t even be all that cold.

          • I think these may valid arguments, and as I said, it may be that the Ick factor has me confused. They still wring as “everybody does it” and “it could be worse” rationalizations to me.

    • Well as I understand the Goodwill is an equal opportunity employer. “The Homeless” in my opinion is just politically correct speech. Lets make it real: the crazies off their meds and substance abusers that don’t choose to work.

      • That’s a demonstrably false characterization, having done some work with the homeless. Disturbed and wounded veterans, to name one sub-group, are never “bums.” Yes, there are charlatans and professional beggers on the streets, and yes, they are often indistinguishable from the real thing. Characterizing them all as “bums” and “hobos” is both cruel and willfully ignorant.

        • I agree that the veterans are a group that have a lot of problems and sometimes wind up on the streets. I know that PTSD is a big problem and it will get worse: there are now more Vietnam vets that have committed suicide that were killed in the whole Vietnam war. However, I have not seen many in my town and we have a reasonably good VA hospital in the area and clinics to serve them. So if they are not willing to take advantage of veterans benefits (financial and otherwise) and substance abuse, what do you suggest we do? How do we distinguish the truly needy from scam artists?

  7. Well, if I was one of the hobos, I’d thank him for the warm clothing and ask him for a job if he really wants to help me. (Then I’d wear the duds inside out or covered as I hate wearing logos at work where benefits are involved)

  8. I think what Mr. Johnsen said made is what makes the act of giving shirts to homeless a little creepy. He made it clear that the gift is in the nature of free advertising and that is manipulative and unsettling. It’s why I don’t buy Toms shoes. It feels exploitative.

  9. Btw, a hobo is a migratory worker or homeless vagabond—especially one who is penniless. These were the guys (and I guess, some women) who lost their jobs in the Great Depression and “rode the rails” looking for work. So technically, it was not originally a derogatory term. They are unlike “tramps”—who work only when they are forced to, and “bums”—who do not work at all.

  10. I recently had the opportunity to interview Mr. Johnsen, and think that he might just suffer from Foot-in-Mouth Syndrome. This story wouldn’t be news if it weren’t for FB; he wasn’t shouting about this donation from the rooftops, and where he was, he’s only guilty–in my opinion–of having diarrhea of the mouth.

    Also–something that no one seems to have addressed–who among us would be looking at the brand of a transient’s clothing? And, if we did look, what are the odds we’d be more likely to patronize a business because we saw a displaced person wearing a logo that bears their moniker?

    Anyway, karma seems to have eradicated the marketing campaign…read on:

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