NY agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) launched the world’s shortest national branding campaign through their recent SXSW #HomelessHotSpot program, successfully positioning themselves as faux altruists and national marketing pariahs in record time. Clearly this campaign is slated for Gold when the AAF adds the “self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head” category to their ADDY awards program.
Literally within minutes of turning Austin’s homeless population loose (during SXSW) with WiFi routers strapped to their bodies, the Agency’s efforts were garnering cyber reams of disdain. Comments like “dehumanizing,” “exploitive,” and “shameful” were the norm -- however, the Agency plucked a few nuggets like “creative” and “innovative” to justify their efforts. In no time the national press was covering the story (so much juicier than writing about another gathering of face-painting startup wantrapreneurs), and BHH emerged from the shadows of their efforts to claim the microphone. After all -- why bother with altruism if there’s no payoff!
The agency positioned the program as an initiative strictly to help the homeless (not themselves, of course), with spokesperson Emma Cookson telling CNN on March 13: “I work for a communications agency, and inside the agency there are a lot of people who are just very interested and passionate about the homeless issue generally.” Cookson’s defensive attitude during the interview wasn’t helped by her snarky British accent and implication that their efforts were just misunderstood, adding that “there's been some (comments) that were a lot more positive than the ones you read on the air.” Ms. Cookson’s training at the Newt Gingrich School of Tact and Humility was clearly paying off. Canny listeners got the message: BHH employees care so much about the homeless that they probably tweet every time they gift a panhandler with a quarter. Shortly after this piece aired, the firestorm erupted.
By the evening of day two, BHH was in full crisis mode -- sticking to the message that they were just trying to help the homeless, for Ghandi’s sake: “We are not selling anything. There is no brand involved. There is no commercial benefit whatsoever,” they cried -- as the general mass misunderstanding continued. Within a scant three days of launching the campaign, BHH swallowed the poison pill and pulled the plug on their philanthropic Trojan Horse. They claimed in true “you’re not firing me, I’m quitting” fashion that they planned to end their non-commercial, purely altruistic campaign all along. Perish the thought that an Agency that wears its nobleness on its sleeve would ever use the homeless population as a marketing tool!
Instead of attempting to turn their dead dog of an idea into a Best of Show, BHH could have played their hand for what it was: marketing roadkill. BHH knew their campaign could go south but pursued it for the sheer sake of publicity. They might as well have stuck sandwich boards on the homeless that said “buy marketing from us because we feel bad for the person we’re paying to wear this sign.” It wouldn’t be pretty, or disguised with a lot of shallow faux altruistic fluff -- but it would be true.
An honest campaign would have provided Ms. Cookson with a much simpler set of talking points: “We’re using homeless people to sell our stuff. You got a problem with that?” This might have led to an interesting conversation on BHH’s open door policy of hiring anyone -- even the homeless -- to represent their agency…just in time for the Summer Intern program. Instead they took the high road to the gutter.
True altruism is defined as sacrificing something for someone with no expectation of compensation or benefits -- like national press and potential new business. Are the geniuses at BHH wondering what fine, upstanding clients Cadillac, Burburry, Johnny Walker, Sprite and Vaseline are thinking about this gambit and the grimy ring it might leave on them? Presumably any potential campaigns to “raise awareness,” like using burning Tibetan monks in marshmallow roasts for peace (for example) have been shelved as the agency rethinks its altruistic “Skunkworks program.”