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.

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  1. mark says:

    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.

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    • Nate says:

      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.

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    • Vincent Li says:

      for C, we need help them

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  2. Michael Pasternak says:

    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…

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  3. jane says:

    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.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      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.

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  4. JPN says:

    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.

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  5. NZ says:

    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?

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    • JPN says:

      These are long term concerns. But in the short term, this isn’t a problem.

      There are homeless people everywhere. Ever drive through Soma in SF?

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      • NZ says:

        Short term or long term, the point is that it would happen quickly enough to watch your property values drop and your neighborhood become a place you wouldn’t want your kids walking to school in.

        Yes, obviously there are homeless people everywhere. (I was briefly homeless as a teenager–it can happen to just about anyone.) But this is different from whether the homeless are seen and encountered everywhere. I know it’s not politically correct to admit this, but I prefer not to see or encounter homeless people, and I think most other non-homeless people share my feelings–especially those of us with children.

        (This is a separate issue entirely from whether we feel badly for the homeless or would like to help them, but it seems that people are insistent upon conflating the two.)

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    • pawnman says:

      If someone’s out there wearing a sandwich board or holding a sign for Pizza Hut’s lunch buffet, do you know whether or not they are homeless?

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  6. James says:

    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.

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  7. Steve Cebalt says:

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

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  8. Phil says:

    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.

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    • Shane L says:

      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.)

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