By now you’ve probably heard about Homeless Hotspots, a “charitable” initiative spearheaded by marketing firm BBH Labs that turns homeless people into wifi hotspots at SXSWi. The project wants to bring “Street Newspapers into the digital age” by attaching a 4G hotspot to homeless Austin residents and encouraging passersby to pay for access. Homeless participants then get to keep any profit they make from their hotspot.
Unsurprisingly, the project has encountered some serious backlash following its launch. “It is a neat idea on a practical level, but also a little dystopian. When the infrastructure fails us… we turn human beings into infrastructure?” writes David Gallagher on the New York Times SXSW Tumblr.
“It’s the Kony 2012 of SXSW,” tweeted writer Helen Walters.
So who are the marketing gurus behind this ill-conceived philanthropic clusterfuck? BBH Labs is the “global innovative unit” of BBH Global, a longstanding British advertising agency. As Creative Director Jeremy Ettinghouse writes in a blog post for BBH Labs entitled “Pretentious? Nous?,” advertising types like himself typically sport “curious facial hair, absurd spectacles and MA1 Flight Jackets.” And they also worry very much about the lack of discussion surrounding underground French cinema.
“I’m concerned that there may not be enough people discussing arthouse movies, German dance troupes, experimental theatre,” writes Mr. Ettinghouse, perhaps while longingly pulling on a cigarette from some monochromatic urban fire escape. “I’ve come to rue this loss of pretentiousness,” he continues. “I wish people more often cited the marginal and the maddening, the absurd and the abstruse.”
It all makes sense now. Obviously Homeless Hotspots is an attempt to hearken back to the heyday of advertising, an absurdist vision of iPhone-brandishing Don Drapers on hallucinogens.
If Homeless Hotspots was an elaborate scheme to usher pretentiousness back into advertising, then BBH is just plain genius, non?