Question of the Day: Why Don't Companies Advertise on Homeless People?

Callum Linley, an 18-year-old reader from Melbourne, Australia, writes to say:

So why aren’t there companies lining up to advertise on homeless people?

My guess is it’s an image problem – not wanting to be associated with the “failure” of being homeless. But wouldn’t that be compensated by the fact you could put forward the idea that you are a socially responsible and sympathetic company who cares for the less fortunate?

Well, the world already has given us Bumvertising and homeless people as wi-fi hotspots, and I wouldn’t be surprised if homeless advertising has shown up on TV (hey Simpsons and Family Guy and South Park fans etc., let us know). But how would you answer Callum’s question?  Does it fall into the category of:

a) Questions that are so obvious that they don’t need an answer; or

b) Questions that should be asked more often, but aren’t; or

c) Something else entirely.


I can think of a couple of problems, other than the one already mentioned of the image problem.

1) How much would a company even be willing to give? If you're a homeless person in a smaller town, I don't imagine that you'd get paid much to advertise, as it wouldn't be reaching many people. Even homeless people in big cities aren't necessarily going to go out of their way to be visible to others, which brings up another problem:

2) How would payment even work? Do you pay up front? If so, how do you ensure that the homeless are actually advertising your company? What's to stop a homeless person from taking money from a whole slew of companies, and then just throwing your advertising materials in a dumpster?

Or do you pay them afterwards? If so, how can you even measure how much of an effect the homeless person has had? Certainly, even if someone were steered to your company by a homeless person's ad, they would probably not want to admit that.



You could just donate clothes with your company's name on them. For example, I think that if you gave the homeless nice jackets, they would wear the jackets for their own warmth and comfort.

Michael Pasternak

I'd say that no legal entity wants to be seen "employing" homeless people who by virtue of such employment may become eligible for company benefits, potentially making them a burden for that company. And how would that company remunerate the homeless: cash? bank deposit "in trust"? On the other hand, maybe there's a "solution economy" arrangement in which an investor provides seed money to a social-services group to work with those homeless persons. The goal: reduction in the numbers of homeless. If the goal is met, the investor gets some kind of return (guaranteed by the advertiser). Still, it does seem counter-intuitive...


Homeless people are hard for mainstream companies to deal with - by definition, otherwise these people would have a regular job and would not be homeless. Advertising on homeless people means working with them - arranging for them to wear/pass out some materials, showing up for updates ('new and improved' sticker), showing up to get paid. All of these is too hard to be practical.

Enter your name...

You're thinking of long-term, chronic homelessness, largely due to substance abuse and mental illness. For the temporary homeless (e.g., lost their home due to a family breakup or the rent skyrocketing or losing a job), who mostly need a job and some help connecting to social services, this could work out pretty well. There's no real reason why the sign twirler for a local business needs to be hired from the "housed" population.


There is any easy way to implement that solves Mark's concerns.

Hand out t-shirt/signs to homeless people. Tell them that at a random time, a car will go out driving around the area. If they see a group of at least X people wearing the t-shirt/holding the sign, they will give each person of that group f(X) dollars. Only 1 group a day will be paid.

f(X) is a positive function of X to encourage homeless people to encourage other homeless people to participate.


This idea is essentially piggy backing off something I learned in the podcast:



If the homeless are used to advertise, the advertisers have an incentive to make sure the homeless are as visible as possible.

1. If you have the choice to live in two identical places where the only difference is that one has a very visible homeless population and the other doesn't, which would you choose?

2. What if you are considering buying property or making some other investment in one of those places? Then which do you choose?

3. If you're a homeless person, do you want to be highly visible to the non-homeless public, or do you want to mostly mind your own business and be left alone?


I believe companies do use homeless people to advertise. For instance, around here there are people, often in costume, dancing around on street corners holding signs pointing to businesses, real estate developments, and so on. While I don't absolutely know that some or many of these people are homeless, it would seem likely that this casual labor would appeal to them.

Steve Cebalt

This is genius. Many ideas seem difficult, or crazy, UNTIL SOMEONE DOES IT.


I'd say it's almost entirely an image problem.
Most advertising isn't trying to sell you and I an individual product - it's raising our awareness of the brand and trying to attach positive associations such that, when we get to a crowded electronics store or supermarket we're already primed to see value in the brand.

Using homeless people as advertising would attach negative values that would damage a brand.

Shane L

Exactly, Phil. Fashion companies give free clothes to wealthy celebrities because they want people to associate the brand with the celebrity. Who wants to associate their brand with poverty and suffering? (Unless, as Tim puts it, you want to associate your rival's brand with it.)

Tim Keller

If it is an image problem, pay them to advertise your competitors product.


If you paid someone to be homeless, wouldn't that diminish their incentive to take actions to not be homeless?

John Peschken

I'm guessing it's a combination of things.

1. We don't like being reminded that homeless people exist in America.
2. It's seen further humiliating people who are already maxed out on humiliation.

On the other hand, I see people on street corners, holding and waving signs and often wearing clown suits or other costumes for "Super Sales" and "Going Out of Business" sales who I am guessing from appearance are homeless or near homeless. We may already be doing more of this than is generally realized.


I see those people too, but I think they're mostly just teenagers who probably couldn't get better jobs.

I was going to make a joke that they were "bums, but not homeless," but I guess I have to give teenagers credit for getting jobs these days, when most parents seem to let their teenagers it at home and play video games or God knows what.

Voice of Reason

I think that there's a pretty simple solution for why it's not economic to advertise to homeless people. In order to justify spending money on advertising and to make money off of selling a product, you either need to sell it at high margins to a few wealthy customers (sports cars, country club memberships, financial planning services, luxury vacations, etc.), or sell it at low margins to a massive audience (Burger King, KFC, household cleaning products, white socks, etc.).

However, Homeless people have almost no money to spend, but they also comprise a very small percentage of the population. So there's really no reason for a firm to go out of their way to sell to that market. No bulk and no lucrative, high margins.


It's advertise "on" homeless people, not "to" the homeless.


My favorite current show, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, had an episode where they had "hobovertising" to get the word out on a member of the gang running for office.
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