Charities must raise their game when it comes to social issues

Using an iPhone app to raise public awareness of homelessness may be fun, but beware of appearing to just be playing the game.

I have taken in a homeless youth. This makes me sound like a saint, but frankly, I’m finding him a bit irritating. He demands food and money at all times of the day and night, with little regard to my own circumstances or finances. He never talks to me, responding only in slightly sarcastic gestures and facial expressions. Sometimes he just disappears for a while.

My homeless boy is actually an iPhone app called iHobo. Developed by Publicis for the charity DePaul, this aims to educate smartphone-owning consumers about the issues of homelessness. I am not actually a vicious homeless hater with no soul; I’m just experiencing life caring for a fictional virtual teen on the (mobile) streets.

For those of you without access to an iPhone, it’s a bit like having a graphically superior version of the old children’s favourite Tamagotchi. In the kiddie version, you feed the virtual pet, clean up its waste and even marry other Tamagotchis. In the iHobo version, you can feed your youth, offer him cash and attempt to keep him off drugs and booze.

When I first downloaded this app, I thought it was a joke. There is a brilliant plotline in Ben Stiller’s 2001 film Zoolander where a fashion designer creates a collection called “Derelicte” based on homeless looks. He claims to have been inspired by “the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique”.

But since iHobo turns out not to be a joke but a genuine marketing tool, I found myself asking: is an app game now the most effective way for charities to gain interest from consumers? I don’t think you should ever knock not-for-profit organisations for finding new ways to reach people but I’m never keen on brands using a marketing channel just because it exists.

The marketing motivation behind using an app game rather than other methods is apparently that there is a mass of potential donors who are defined by their mobiles. These people aren’t responding to regular charity appeals. Perhaps taking homelessness into their pockets will drive the message home.

So does it work? Well, partly. In less than a week, more than 100,000 people downloaded iHobo, taking it to the top of the UK app download charts. And both DePaul and Publicis have received some nice PR for their efforts.

People commenting on iHobo in iTunes stores have also admitted that the way the app constantly demands attention (it buzzes or beeps whenever you’re needed) does remind you that homelessness is ever present.

The donation mechanism on the app is also quite good. Charity apps often find the process of moving people through the app to actually coughing up cash tricky. Some require you to register on web pages and various longwinded methods that make all but the most determined donors give up.

By contrast, iHobo asks for donations by text, which can be seamlessly and automatically sent just by pressing a button offering £1, £3 or £10. Nice functionality.

But there are huge flaws with the premise too. Despite the phone nagging me, I found it quite easy to stop my iHobo from harassing me by turning off the notifications. Just as I often forget to play a round of iPhone Scrabble against a friend for a week, my iHobo has apparently turned to drugs several times due to my neglect (well, I have to go to work).

Rather than making me feel guilty for ignoring his issues, it just endlessly reinforces the depressing idea that being on the streets somehow equals drug addiction. Other critics, who work with the homeless or have themselves slept on the streets, complain that merely treating the subject of homelessness as a game is bad enough. 

The donation metric, while slick, also raises a few questions. The screen tells me that I’ll be charged the donation rate plus one message at my standard network rate. That’s fine, but why then the small print telling me that of my £1, “at least 60p” will go to DePaul. For £3, the charity gets £2.18 and for £10, £7.14. Where does the extra money go? I’m already paying the phone network for sending a message. It’s not entirely clear and this type of opacity does not work well for a charity.

Still, it could be worse. This isn’t the only recent initiative aiming to tackle homelessness. If you want to experience the hell of living on the street with absolutely none of the misery, why not invest in a Le-Trottoir bedsheet from Snurk Bedding? This is a sheet for your comfy bed at home that looks like a pavement. The European brand does give a 40% portion of the profits to the Dutch Homeless Youngsters Foundation, but 60% of the cash goes to the company.

Or if you’ve got kids, invest in Mattel’s American Girl “Gwen” doll. Gwen is designed to be homeless, but costs $95 for a little girl to buy –  without a penny going to good causes. The product might be vaguely educational in having a story about why Gwen is on the street, but it doesn’t escape the fact that it really just generates profits for Mattel.

I’m not putting iHobo in the same category as the bedsheet or the doll. DePaul’s effort to make an unpalatable subject feel real for a hard-to-reach audience is very laudable, but does this app game take homelessness awareness into new marketing territory?

I think not. The technology may be new, the graphics may be sharp, the donation method might be mobile and the gameplay may even be reasonably engaging. But in simplifying this issue down to iPhone level, the execution can appear crass and stereotyped. And in the 21st century, that’s just not very cool at all.

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