(photo ripped from source)

I came across this story and couldn’t resist sharing.

From Bumvertizing.com (via MIT’s Ad Lab):

Bumvertising™, or the use of sign holding vagrants to advertise, is a development of PokerFaceBook.com’s most recent advertising campaign. Homeless men are able to provide a valuable and tangible service to a company, while receiving an additional revenue stream in combination with their normal donations from begging.

Benjamin Rogovy, president and chief economist of Front Door Enterprises, developed this system after realizing the enormous potential in wasted homeless labor. Bums use a business model that takes advantage of high volume traffic, with the expectation that, on average, a certain number of people will donate to them in the form of cash, clothing, or food. Some people, by principle, will never give a homeless man money. Some will give food to them whenever they can. But what is the use of holding up a bum sign to 99% of car traffic that will only read but never donate to these vagrants? With such great exposure, Mr. Rogovy imagined that there had to be some value that was not being utilized. Through his own effort and the assistance of his marketing team, Mr. Rogovy developed signs and accumulated the resources that most bums would find attractive. Money, sandwiches, chips, apples, water, and other beverages have all been dispensed in order to compensate the homeless in the Seattle Bumvertising™ campaign.

It is also Mr. Rogovy’s belief that bums will incur higher revenues from donations after showing the initiative to seek out semi-legitimate employment. Many of the vagabonds of PokerFaceBook.com’s Bumvertising campaign remark that they are receiving more comments and questions than ever. “People are actually reading my signs!”, remarked Robert, one of PokerFaceBook.com’s most loyal derelicts. “I thought they just handed me a dollar but never read what I was saying.”

Disclaimer: Before I start, please note that all of the images attached to this post are meant to parody the concept of bumvertising. None of the companies whose brands are used in this post either endorse bumvertising, streetvertising or nunvertising. Please also note that due to FedEx’s recent trademark entanglements (and resulting busy legal schedule), I thought it best not to use the FedEx mark anywhere in this post. (You’re welcome.)

Okay, back to the topic at hand… So assuming that this bumvertising stuff works for Poker Face Books (let’s give Mr. Rogovy the benefit of the doubt), would this also work for American Express? Burger King? Trader Joe’s? Jiffy Lube? In fact, would it work for anyone?

I just made a case for basic exposure vs. strategic brand alignment in athletic sponsorship packages in which I argued that exposure could be at least, if not more effective… but I was rambling about Bissell’s decision to sponsor Lance Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team. Obviously, there’s a bit of a contextual difference between using Lance Armstrong as a human billboard for your brand, and… a bunch of homeless guys.

The question that comes to mind is… what kind of message does a bank or credit card company send by using a homeless person to (in a very real sense) represent them? How about a restaurant chain? How about a doctor’s office or a music store? How about Starbucks? Yeah, it sounds clever at first… but then the rest of the brain should kick in.

copyright 2004 Olivier Blanchard

Homeless people holding “I’m hungry” or “I need money” signs usually make a point of looking miserable (I’m not saying they fake it… but they certainly don’t have much of an incentive to look happy and upbeat). So basically, your human billboard is going to tend to look depressed and weary. Wow… great. What a great way to promote your brand: Stick it on poor, depressed looking people begging for your loose change at red lights.

Now… the state of the service industry being what it is, bearded sullen faces aren’t much of a stretch from the bored, irritable cashiers you’re already forced to suffer at your local gocery store (and just about everywhere else)… but… well… you see where I’m going with this. How much crappier can things get? These aren’t costumed signwalkers we’re talking about here. They’re homeless people. Come on. What’s next? Old people? Renting advertising space on the backs of veterans’ wheelchairs?

Now, if they were advertising a charity… say a homeless shelter, a local program… or a church’s outreach center, even, then I could see the point. More importantly, drivers and passersby might too. The way I see it, the social context of the homeless person holding up a sign is so strong that it can only truly serve related themes. If the message of their ad were along the lines of ‘Don’t just help me, help your community. We’re doing something about poverty.” That approach might actually incite people to give money to the bumvertisers and look into the program they are promoting. From both marketing and a social activism standpoints, that strategy could be immensely successful. But that’s where I think the buck stops.

Personally, seeing a homeless person holding up a sign for Dairy Queen just five blocks from one of their locations might initially make me crave a Blizzard, but by the time I got there, I would probably feel too guilty about that poor guy back there holding the sign to actually buy one. And that’s advertising a product I already know and love. If what he’s selling isn’t even something I know, I just won’t care. I just don’t see this form of advertising being all that effective at all.

I also have a bit of a problem with the notion that seeing homeless people doing something other than just begging for money will incite more passersby to give them cash. First of all, they aren’t doing anything other than just stand there begging for money. They’re just holding a bigger sign now. Their prospects haven’t exactly improved. Second, many people have grown distrustful of “will-work-for-food” scams perpetrated by “fake” beggars (no, seriously), so I doubt that having what appears to be homeless folks advertise a business or product will actually generate much sympathy in potential donors. Contrary to the argument made in the article, pasting an ad on them will probably make people even less likely to give them money. Why? Because bumvertisers aren’t really beggars anymore: They’re getting paid to stand there. They don’t need more charity, do they?

Regardless of whether or not bumvertisements will actually benefit the companies they serve, I am tempted to salute Mr. Rogovy’s effort to provide the homeless in his area with ‘ semi-legitimate’ employment (if that’s what you call taping an ad to the bottom of a “Will Work For Food” cardboard sign), and it’s cool that he’s making them peanut butter sandwiches and all, but… it all seems to me to be a tad bit exploitative, doesn’t it? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. www.bumvertising.com has a page that lets you report “hot” bum corners… and Rogovy features profiles of several of his “regulars” in which he describes their comings and goings as “business trips”. He goes on to state:

“Robert, the hardest working of the PokerFaceBook.com advertising campaign, shares the 45th street off-ramp, but prefers to market toward the left turning traffic. He has a penchant for vanilla wafers and sun chips. Robert doesn’t believe in drinking on the job. Robert works from dawn to dusk for himself, but always appreciates the additional income from advertising contracts.”

Sun chips? ‘Works for himself?’ Business trips? Come on. I smell a rotten egg here.

copyright 2004 Olivier Blanchard

I know, I know… using the homeless to hand out flyers at red lights or sell newspapers isn’t anything new and it’s a good way for them to make some quick cash… But it’s still kind of lame, perhaps because it is so short-sighted. There”s no real opportunity for them here. Not that it should be a prerequisite, but since they’re homeless and all, some thought towards that would be a nice touch. Don’t just exploit these people and talk about them like they’re children… Help them get out of their difficult situation by giving them real jobs (or at least real wages instead of sun chips and vanilla wafers). Use your brand’s power for more than revenue generation and publicity. It isn’t just an idealistic point of view, it’s also good business. It’s the kind of thing that makes people remember you in a positive light. Everyone loves a good corporate citizen. Nobody likes a fake. If you are going to market yourself as a social entrepreneur, be one.

(Kudos for trademarking “bumvertising” though. Somebody had better jump on ‘hobotising’ before somebody else grabs it. Pfffft.)

Unfortunately, boiled down to the basics of this strategy: These people are super-cheap labor and Rogovy is using their desperation to his advantage.

As a footnote though, I have to acknowledge that while the bumvertisements themselves may never amount to much in terms of ROI (vanilla waifers are holding steady at $60.32 a barrel), the 15 minutes of fame he enjoyed thanks to the news media’s penchant for the wackiness of his idea has probably resulted in some decent exposure for his company… and all for a few bills and some peanut butter sandwiches. (Not too shabby, even if it was a complete accident.)

PS: Don’t forget to check out the killer wine reviews at www.bumwine.com.