March 13, 2012; Source: New York Times

Imagine the moment of conception for an idea that has become one of the most talked-about “products” of this year’s South by Southwest technology conference. It might have gone something like this: “Let’s pay homeless people a small daily stipend, say $20, to walk around the conference and pitch our wireless hot spot promotion. They could be human, roaming Internet hot spots! Wearing shirts that say as much! As an incentive for being proactive, they could even keep what’s donated to them in exchange for free temporary access to our hot spots. It’s a win-win. Way cheaper than a marketing campaign for us, and a paid volunteer gig for the down and out . . .” Really?

This idea was the brainchild of BBH Labs, the innovation arm of the BBH international marketing agency. To BBH’s credit, they vetted the idea with a local nonprofit shelter, Front Steps, whose development director helped fine-tune the program design to tap the “entrepreneurial spirit” of its clients. And at least one of the thirteen “volunteers” is enthusiastic about the deal. Clarence Jones said, “I love talking to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.”

Here’s a private company partnering with a nonprofit to empower entrepreneurial action that generates income for those who have little. Sounds like a classic social enterprise. So why does this feel like social enterprise gone terribly wrong?

Certainly, it’s not unprecedented for people to sell themselves as product displays. In the golden age of department stores, live models graced lavish window displays. Today, waving people wear sandwich boards on street corners, promoting mattress sales, pizzas and tax preparation services. Oh wait—these people are paid at least minimum wage by law! So that’s one key difference. Furthermore, the irony of poor people paraded about as a mobile product for the well-off is too much for critics. In the words of blogger Tim Carmody, the project sounds like “something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.” The contrasting circumstances are inhumane to ignore.

BBH’s Saneel Radia is surprised by the criticism. “We saw it as a means to raise awareness by giving homeless people a way to engage with mainstream society and talk to people,” Radia says. “The hot spot is a way for them to tell their story.” Whatever the intent, however, the result appears to be an insensitive, exploitative commodification of people in need. Let’s draw some clearer ethical boundaries for social enterprise experiments from this. Really. –Kathi Jaworski