Homeless, Inc.

Social ill or marketing opportunity?

[Editor's Note: A Creative Loafing favorite for many years, Scott Harrell returns to our pages with this semi-weekly column, as charmingly sardonic as ever. Enjoy.]

As Americans, we don't make a whole lot of stuff these days. What we do is, we sell a lot of stuff. And we do it better than any other nation on the planet.

Of course we do. Part of it is necessity; when you don't have a whole lot of really good stuff that sells itself, you get pretty good at making anything sound desirable pretty quickly. But mostly, Americans are marvelous salespeople because we know exactly what every American really wants: to be influential enough to make every other American think that we would only have the coolest stuff. To make every other American want what we've got, be it a cell phone, information, an ideology, a boob job or whatever.

So, yeah, we've gotten pretty good at that shit.

Which makes me wonder why the American sales/promotional/marketing industry is blowing it so completely with regard to an increasingly ubiquitous guerilla advertising opportunity:

The homeless.

Back in the heady early days of the new millennium, a group of ambitious, morally ambivalent California 20somethings paid indigent men small amounts of money to fistfight, perform painful stunts and otherwise debase themselves for a tasteless, exploitative and embarrassingly entertaining series of videos called Bumfights. This was, of course, reprehensible. But they also gave one of the men, Donald Brennan, a reported $200 to let an artist tattoo "bumfight" on his forehead.

This. Was. Genius. It was nothing short of a visionary precursor to the inevitable "coming thing" in grassroots marketing.

With the economy in shambles, there are unfortunate men and women making themselves highly visible at every well-trafficked stoplight and freeway on-ramp in the nation. These tragic symbols of our country's current financial woes are the blank canvasses upon which the next generation of clever promotional techniques will inevitably be written; the potential for innovative exposure is simply too great to ignore.

The possibilities for political groups and non-profits alone are practically endless. It seems inconceivable to me that some clever GOP operative hasn't already distributed thousands of shirts bearing a slogan like "Your Change Helps Me More Than Obama's," or that some enterprising liberal PR whiz isn't handing out hoodies that say "Dick Cheney Outsourced My Future." Companies that produce goods, services or technologies that might "synergize" with "the untethered lifestyle," such as handheld GPS receivers, weatherproof clothing or recyclable goods, should have their products and logos plastered on the homeless to the point that these folks in need begin to resemble human race cars. And then there are the edgier approaches, like a hair salon giving one of these gentlemen or ladies an eye-catchingly incongruent high-fashion coif, or an architecture firm building them a tiny, attractive, portable shelter.

Every inch of hat, of torso, of sign held aloft not festooned with corporate logos, web addresses, catchy phrases or examples of product is an inch wasted.

Hey, I'm not suggesting the industry flat-out use these sympathetic figures. In fact, in a way, it's an employment opportunity, a first step toward the rebuilding of a personal sense of purpose, and useful reintegration into society. Give them stuff they need to survive. Pay them a wage.

Just, you know, not enough to get them off the street.

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