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?


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?


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.)


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.

Voice of Reason

Whoa, whoops, my bad. That's an embarrassing blunder. I still think that what I wrote is somewhat thought provoking though.


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.
For more:


Done: Pizza Schmizza in Portland, OR did this in 2003.


Perhaps homeless people tend to make unreliable employees. By say spending their time in a subway instead of the shopping district.

Joe J

Two thoughts come to mind.
1. Isn't that what some of the sign twirlers are.
2. Most advertising is trying to associate (sometimes on an unconscious level) buy this product and you will be the person in the ad. Most obvious with beer and makeup commercials. Use our lip gloss and you will be a supermodel, drink our beer and you will be the most interesting person alive.
SO associating on a subconscious level, use our product and be homeless, is not something any advertiser wants out there.


Believe it or not there are companies that use to (I am not sure if they still do but I wouldn't be suprised) pick up homeless people in Detroit, put them on a bus and drive them to hold advertisement signs in the suburbs. I can't tell you how many homeless people I met who told me they were familiar with my community because they "worked" there.

David Rasmussen

Homeless beggars are often considered to be a menace. For example, when homeless beggars camp out on medians of congested streets, they disrupt traffic flow and make unsafe streets less safe. The danger is to the people driving by and to pedestrians in the area as drivers become more distracted than they would otherwise be. The danger is also to the homeless beggars, as they frequently run in and out of traffic. It is quite obvious why no company would want to advertise in this situation. Further, there are legal issues to consider for city governments who do not take sufficient action to prevent this danger.

Let's generalize further. Let's point to examples where the behavior of homeless beggars may not represent a safety risk to those around them. Does not the homeless lifestyle tend to be a major health and safety risk for those who live this way?

Now let's think of the brand. Do I want my restaurant to be thought of in conjunction with dumpster food? Do I want my hygiene product to be thought of in conjunction with head lice, body odor, and stains?

Homelessness is an issue you address head on and prevent. If you want to do a favor for a homeless person, get them a bicycle such they they might have transportation and be able to hold a job. Or, develop a personal relationship.

Or, ignore and hope it goes away. Per a survey in the SF Chronicle, most all of the money to homeless beggars comes from young and naive people unaware of the unhealthy lifestyles and addictions they are sustaining for others.