With hundreds of startups, media companies, ad agencies and various hangers-on vying for attention at SXSW, publicity-hungry firms need to come up with creative ways to break out of the pack. In 2012, the-PR-stunt-of-the-year award clearly went to New York-based advertising agency Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty (BBH), which turned homeless people on the streets of Austin into internet hotspots. The ad agency paid 13 homeless people $20 to carry mobile internet devices and wear shirts that read, “I’m [Melvin], a 4G Hotspot.” Attendees at the notoriously bandwidth-strapped conference could use these human hotspots to log on to the Internet. Needless to say, the exercise, while certainly attention-grabbing, was in very poor taste. After a public backlash, BBH dropped plans to expand the program. But by then, BBH’s mission was already accomplished, if you believe the PR maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Update 3/16: BBH objected to the description of their program above on two points: “We did NOT pay participants in this scheme just $20 a day. Their guaranteed minimum payment was $50 for 5-6 hours work daily (an amount above Texas minimum wage) – and they will each actually receive significantly more than that due to donation levels. BBH did not ‘drop plans’ for the continuance of this program. This initial program was conceived as a pilot for the duration of the SXSWi conference and was carried through to the end, largely due to the ongoing enthusiasm of the participants themselves.”