The most important thing that happened at SXSW Interactive wasn't an app launch or a keynote presentation. It wasn’t a major acquisition or a surprise takeover. In many ways, it was a controversy that broke out over a questionably brilliant marketing campaign by BBH Labs, in partnership with Front Steps, an Austin, Texas homeless shelter. The result was "Homeless Hotspots," several real, live homeless men equipped with Verizon MiFis, wearing specially printed t-shirts which say, for instance, "Hi, my name is Clarence, I am a 4G hotspot, SMS HH Clarence TO 25827 for access," with a URL of the Homeless Hotspots website. The program asked for a suggested donation of $2 per 15 minutes of Wi-Fi, donated via PayPal, but had no official going rate (though you had to pay something). The money, once collected, would go directly to the person manning the 4G hotspot.

A lot of outrage followed, unsurprisingly, because of the basic, gut reaction to the objectification of real human beings being used as a marketing stunt. Wired’s Tim Carmody, late last night, detailed some of the seemingly questionable back story of the company (which is a marketing firm, after all) while ReadWriteWeb made plenty of really great points about the problematic nature of this gimmick. Those criticisms are real, but I would still argue that the campaign is effective at its stated purpose (regardless of the motives involved): raising awareness for the homeless.

Should you be offended? Probably

SXSW Interactive is all about marketing: sit around the Austin Convention Center for half an hour and you'll be littered with flyers and stickers for this app or that event, and if you go outside, everything is marketing. Mashable had a bus rolling around town giving out empanadas; GroupMe gave out free grilled cheeses (and even had a food eating contest won by competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi); CNN and Fast Company both had branded "grill" restaurants. Free food, free booze, is everywhere. What are they asking for? Well, on the one hand, it seems like a sweet deal (note: we don't eat the free food or drink the free booze, it's against our rules) because you get something for nothing. That's basic marketing! You walk away with a free grilled cheese and (GroupMe hopes) a better opinion of their company. The goal is influence.

So back to Clarence, the 4G human hotspot (who is from New Orleans and lost his house in Hurricane Katrina). Rather than giving you something for nothing, Homeless Hotspots requires an actual transaction. You have to pay something, whatever you wish, to get Wi-Fi access, a real commodity on the streets of Austin. But the marketing gimmick itself requires something else: recognition of another human being, one who is suffering. Whereas plenty of people seemed to think that was dehumanizing, it’s actually kind of the opposite: it’s literally humanizing. Thinking about and looking at the homeless is hard.

Last year when I visited San Francisco, the part of town I stayed in (downtown, where all the hotels are) was, I noticed, completely, shockingly overrun with homeless people. When I Tweeted, then blogged, about it incessantly (I live on the East Coast, where climate makes the homeless much less visible), a few people told me I was in the wrong part of town, some told me the homeless were homeless by choice, and a few sympathized. Most people probably would have preferred that I didn’t talk about it. This gets to the heart of the homeless problem in America, one which is certainly complicated by the fact that the homeless are often suffering in other ways, with drug or alcohol addiction, or with mental illness.

The reality is that the homeless make us uncomfortable

The reality is that the homeless make us uncomfortable; so much so that it is simply easier to ignore them, to look away, or to cross to the other side of the street. I live in a small neighborhood in New York which has a relatively large homeless or semi-homeless problem, most of them alcoholics, so I’m familiar with my own complicated feelings. It’s not that I don’t want to give them money: indeed, I’m happy to. But I don’t want to feel bad, or to think about their lives: I’d rather give them all of the money in my wallet than have a conversation with them because humanizing a person makes them hard to ignore, to walk away from. That is part of what I think is at the center of the outpouring of negative feelings about this marketing stunt.

It seems, however, to be a basic truth about our advertising-driven society that in order to raise awareness of serious issues, we sometimes have to verge on exploitation, often sadly for commercial gain. The best example I can think of in this vein is the incredibly controversial ads which United Colors of Benetton created, the most famous of which featured dying AIDS activist David Kirby and his family, in 1994. Benetton gained a lot: attention for their brand, controversy (very often a huge plus in marketing), and also the sense that their company, which simply makes clothing, stood for a cause. In the process, they also exploited, in some ways, the life and death of a real human being, one who had suffered, and suffered needlessly. But the transaction came to us, the marketed-to, at a price: we paid by having to recognize, and become more aware, of AIDS.

The debate about exploitation and advertising is one worth having, continually, each time something like this arises, because it’s a complicated one without a self-evident answer. The simple fact is that real activists — ones not driven by commercial desires, like Austin’s homeless shelter, which supported this project — almost never have the money or resources to launch awareness campaigns themselves, while advertising agencies and large corporations with often conflicting goals, do.

Does it seem cruel and shitty? Yeah, kind of. Did the creators make some pretty stupid mistakes? Yes (I "am" a hotspot versus I "have" a hotspot, for instance). Should you be offended? Probably. Do I think it’s any worse than any other kind of crass marketing convergence with freebies I’ve witnessed in the last four days? Not really. Did it get us talking about the homeless, and thinking about their lives? Yes, definitely. And that’s valuable, despite the taste in your mouth.