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Prostitution and Smoking Babies: Wi-Fi Company's Tasteless Ad Campaigns

USI Wireless had a sweet deal as the exclusive provider for wireless service for the city of Minneapolis.  For 10 years, USI would be the sole company used to provide outside, cross-city Wi-Fi service, receiving over $12 million in return -- most of it paid for by the local taxpayers.  So when these same local taxpayers began contacting the company to complain about an offensive billboard campaign, you would have thought the company would have taken their concerns seriously. 

Sadly, they didn't.  At least, not until the social media campaign really kicked in.

The billboards, which went up across the city, depicted a blond in a fur, next to the words "Fast, Cheap, And Satisfaction Guaranteed," a pretty direct allusion to the act of prostitution.

For Stacey Burns, a Minneapolis resident concerned about sex trafficking in her neighborhood, where one of these billboards was up, it was definitely worth contacting the company over.

As a customer of USI wireless, as a citizen of Minneapolis, and as a woman who lives in a neighborhood plagued by sex-trafficking and prostitution, I am writing to ask you to pull the new billboard campaign using prostitution as a joke.

I called customer service this morning to register my comments and was told that the billboard campaign was test-marketed to 100% approval, and that my comments would be passed along. Please consider that prostitution is a serious problem in Minneapolis--treating it as a joke undermines the work the community does to improve the lives of women forced into prostitution. Did you know that 21% of Native American women in Minnesota who are recruited into prostitution are between the ages of 8-12? Or that more than 100,000 American girls are sexually trafficked in the United States, with their first sexual encounter between the ages of 11 and 14?

I appreciate that this ad tested well in the market, but I ask you to consider the impact of normalizing prostitution and human trafficking. Your company won a bid for a ten-year contact in Minneapolis, and I expect more sensitivity to our neighborhoods."

Ms. Burns then involved her local city council member, Gary Schiff, who tried unsuccessfully to contact the company as well. Schiff also learned that city staff had been trying to contact the company for days, to no avail.

The company may not have been talking, but people on the internet sure were, especially via twitter and facebook.  Ms. Burns also contacted many people via email to ask them to contact the company and express their distaste for the ad campaign.

One of those people she contacted was me.  I, too, wrote an email to the company, explaining that I was offended by the use of prostitution in their billboards, that I was a resident of the city subsidizing their wi-fi efforts, and that I expected better from the company. 

After a few hours of no doubt constant contact from angry constituents, city leaders, and local media, USI made the decision to pull their current campaign and began to consider replacement ads instead, asking for input from some of those who had sent in initial complaints, including me.  The new ad bore a remarkable resemblance to the current one, except that, apparently by switching the gender of the model, the ad was somehow less offensive.

That campaign was rejected almost immediately as well.

USI Wireless began pulling down its billboards the following day thanks to consumer pressure, but never seemed to truly understand what exactly was all the fuss.  In an interview with Minnpost, Sam Turner, the company's Operations Manager, explained, "We didn't mean to offend anyone. Our response to the overall situation is we didn't, and don't, feel that the spokesmodel from the ad looks like a prostitute. We've seen way worse."

They weren't intending to portray prostitution, apparently.  Just a slutty woman.

In the end, USI Wireless chose to replace the billboards with this image.  Obviously, the company doesn't learn, but we can leave that for the D.A.R.E campaign.


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