In 2012, the biggest story to come out of South by Southwest Innovation, the tech conference held in Austin, was “Homeless Hotspots.” It was a project by an ad agency that gave 4G hotspots to 13 men without housing in the city to offer Wi-Fi to festivalgoers. The project was immediately slammed by press and attendees as dystopian and a “blunt display of unselfconscious gall.” Now, the man who came up with it is working for the presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg, the former NYC mayor who has his own controversial record on homelessness.
Tim Nolan is currently a “creative lead” overseeing digital advertising for the well-funded machine of Bloomberg 2020, but in 2012 he worked at the ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, where he came up with the idea and organized the execution of the maligned SXSW project, which was not sponsored by a brand. On Nolan’s website, he boasts about the publicity the project received for the agency:
“With over 78,000,000 Google Search Results, and has reached 13,736,154 people through 500 Million earned media impressions as of March 14th, 2012. This issue has by far has become the most spoken about topic to come out of #SXSW since Foursquare.” An infographic about the project made by BBH estimated that it generated $620,341 in publicity value.
The Bloomberg 2020 campaign did not comment by publication time.
Thirteen men were each given a portable 4G hotspot, along with a T-shirt that said "I'm _____, a 4G hotspot" and a code festival-goers could text to donate for use of the Wi-Fi through PayPal. Wired called the project “something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia” and Read Write called it “a human science experiment”. The reaction on Twitter was generally horrified. Critics pointed to the T-shirt wording that said the person was a 4G hotspot instead of “I have a 4G hotspot” as particularly dehumanizing.
After the initial outcry, the press coverage softened, with members of the BBH team explaining what they were trying to do. Several of the men who carried the hotspots told reporters that they didn’t feel exploited (one man told BuzzFeed that he was a little unclear on how the payment via PayPal would work, but was generally happy).
“I find it a success to this date. I still feel very proud of what we were able to do,” Nolan told BuzzFeed News on Friday about the project. Although the project didn’t make money for BBH, he said that he was happy with the publicity it generated. “What client doesn't want to see that you spent under $10K and received an inordinate amount of PR?” he said. “Obviously it shows some that there were some smart-thinking folks who could penetrate the zeitgeist, which is what every brand wants from their agency.”
Mark Horvath, founder of Invisible People, a homelessness advocacy group, had mixed reactions at the time. In the comments of BBH’s blog, he criticized the project for not centering the voices of the people involved, the way “street papers” — Nolan’s inspiration for the project — do. However, he later praised the project in a video, noting that it was the only thing at SXSW that addressed homelessness.
Horvath recently told BuzzFeed News that in retrospect, the project was a net positive. “BBH providing a way for homeless people to make a few dollars and for the public to have a positive interaction with homeless people was brilliant,” he said. “But it was a marketing campaign, not a homeless services strategy. There is zero connection between homeless hotspots to anything going on today.”
Nolan, who lives in New York City, told BuzzFeed News that he wasn’t particularly aware of Bloomberg’s record on homelessness during his time as mayor. He joined the campaign team in November 2019 while he was freelancing and a friend mentioned Bloomberg was hiring ad people (he initially thought his friend meant Bloomberg the media company). “I am the least political person,” he said.
The advertising for Bloomberg 2020 has raised eyebrows over the last few weeks for pushing the boundaries of what has traditionally been accepted for political advertising, like paying large Instagram accounts to post pro-Bloomberg memes (Bloomberg 2020 has also paid for banner ads on BuzzFeed.com). The massive campaign, funded mainly by the former mayor’s own pockets, has spent more on advertising than any other candidate, prompting some to speculate that he is “hacking your attention.”
While street homelessness went down during Bloomberg’s time as mayor, the nightly shelter population rose by 69%, with over 22,000 children sleeping in shelters when he left office. Bloomberg made a controversial policy in 2005 that ended priority for receiving vouchers for housing subsidies for people who are homeless, which some argued keeps families trapped in the shelter cycle (Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, reversed it). In 2009, it was revealed that the city was buying one-way plane tickets to fly people out of town, rather than keeping them in shelters.
Carl Siciliano, executive director for the Ali Forney Center, a shelter and advocacy group for homeless LGBTQ youth, told BuzzFeed News that Bloomberg attempted to cut funding by 50% for youth shelter beds several times during his time as mayor (the City Council stopped the cuts). “It’s just brutal what these kids would go through, just brutal,” Siciliano said. “A lot of lives were badly harmed by his callous treatment of homeless youth during his time as mayor.”
Nolan told BuzzFeed News that if he were to do an updated version of the project for 2020, he would want to use some sort of mobile payments since he doesn’t carry cash. “The biggest barrier to donations is currency,” he said. “I don’t know how to pay a guy who is asking for a dollar other than to take a credit card and go buy him a sandwich.”