Pretty Signs For Homeless People!

Published August 19, 2013 by Visakan Veerasamy+ in Marketing Analysis
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We wrote about #fitchthehomeless a while ago. Somebody was giving away branded clothes to homeless people to protest A&F’s elitist marketing. It was a win-win: people could express their frustration with top-down corporate marketing AND do something nice for homeless people.

Or was it? Some felt that the act dehumanized the homeless, using them as pawns to make a social statement.

We had some mixed thoughts about it ourselves. If something inspires people to reach out to a homeless person with humanity, even if it’s a bit gimmicky, why not? It’s better than doing nothing, right?

Which brings us to the latest outrage-inducing thing we’ve found:

“Can good graphic design help the homeless?”

The following is a project called Signs for the Homeless. You can read about it here:

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31-year-old Jimmy Sunshine has been homeless since 2009.

The idea of it feels ludicrous, exploitative and insulting.  Are homeless people billboards for graphic designers now? If you look at the comments on the FastCoDesign site, you’ll see an outpouring of anger and outrage:

How dare artists make signs for homeless people after donating $20 and having conversations with them?

Kenji and Chris clearly put lots of effort into this. If you take the trouble to go to the Homeless Signs Tumblr, you’ll see not only the before-and-after, but actual conversations with the people pictured. As I scrolled through it, it became clear that that Kenji and Chris care about the people they’re talking to.  They donate $20 to every single person, which is probably a lot more than most of the angry-and-outraged commenters do. It’s fine to have an opinion, but perhaps we should ask homeless people how they feel, instead of feeling outraged on their behalf.

What we want to know is: did the signs work? Did the homeless people receive more donations with the signs? Did the signs inspire strangers to engage them as fellow human beings? We don’t know for sure, but Kenji and Chris are in an interesting position to potentially find out. And these are very important questions to ask if we really care about helping people who’re struggling with homelessness.

Do you remember Mister Splashy Pants?

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In 2007, Greenpeace wanted to get people to care about whaling, which was killing the earth’s endangered humpback whales. So they invited the public to vote on a name for a humpback whale they were planning to track.  Reddit learned about the competition, and threw its weight behind the name “Mister Splashy Pants”. Some environmentalists were offended by the idea, imploring people to “save a whale’s self respect”. Eventually, it had to be conceded that the whirlwind of unexpected attention was a good thing for the whales. And so Mr. Splashypants lives on.

“Save Mister Splashy Pants!” is more effective than “Save the humpback whales!”. It simply is.

We could complain about the human impulse to fetishize the cute and unexpected, or we could recognize it as the reality of the world we live in. We could utilize it to achieve good ends. Is it actually insulting to the humpback whale to receive a cute name? Maybe, but we doubt he cares. He’s probably happier about not getting killed.

We can’t be sure, because we can’t talk to humpback whales. But we can talk to homeless people, which is what Kenji and Christopher have been doing.

Props to them.

Conclusion? Interesting can be much more powerful than noble.

If Kenji and Chris went around just giving out cash, they would have helped those homeless people for about a week each. A nice gesture, but not a very sustainable solution.

If they did regular interviews and conversations, they would have gotten some content that they could’ve shared, but not many people would’ve read it.

Only by giving them eye-catching signs have they been able to draw public attention (at least momentarily) to the plight of the homeless. They created a sticky, memorable talking point that polarizes people and forces us to acknowledge the issue, whether we like it or not.

The signs are the Splashy Pants.

“Redditors in the internet community were happy to participate, but they weren’t whale lovers…. this wasn’t really out of altruism. This was just out of interest in doing something cool.” – Alexis Ohanian

There’s no reason why you couldn’t do the same for your business or product. I don’t mean this in some “Embrace Growth Hacking Social In The Cloud” kind of way, I mean it in a straightforward sense. We’re always hungry for something interesting, something remarkable.

They really just need to be interesting. So do that. Make something interesting, something sticky, and you might just decimate the competition. You might even make some sort of meaningful difference in the world.

Notes:

Read the original article on fastcodesign.com here.

Read about Mister Splashy Pants on Wikipedia. Better yet, watch the 6-minute-long TED Talk by Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian titled How To Make A Splash In Social Media.

 

 

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Visa is the co-founder of Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's been thrice named a Top Writer on Quora. He hopes to enjoy a glass of whiskey onboard a commercial space flight someday.