Of Human Billboards and Dignity of Work

by Min Li Chan

User experience researcher Jan Chipchase writes of human hoardings or billboards in Sao Paulo carrying advertisements for jobs - which provoked me to consider a few things:

1. What function does the human vehicle play in the context of a high-density urban environment, in comparison to a regular billboard? Mobility, for one, to spread the message over a larger geography - but does the bearer then unwittingly become the ambassador or representative for the jobs and announcements advertised?

2. For external observers outside of the cultural context of Sao Paulo, do jobs like the human billboard grate against some ethical compass of what constitutes dignity of work? Or perhaps we shouldn't be perturbed by this scenario altogether -- it is not unreasonable within the cultural circumstances and after all, the boon of having work and income is not to be taken lightly. How is the human billboard different from say, the traditional methodology of hiring someone to hand out flyers in high-density areas, and why would it inspire a sense of dehumanization among some groups of observers?

I recall touching down in the Bengaluru International Airport a couple of years ago and having a moment of ethical crisis when confronted with an airport staff member who offered to pick up my meager baggage from the conveyor belt for very few rupees -- baggage that any able-bodied traveler such as myself could move without much difficulty. Is the appropriate response then to deny a service, under the belief that we should be able to pick up after ourselves (and refute the realities of socioeconomic disparity), or to partake in the service because there is value and benefit in supporting such micro-enterprises?

3. Can we further innovate on the medium? In the case of the human billboard, if the bearers were given the responsibility to be mavens and experts for the various points of advertisement, or even curators of new happenings and going-ons, if may make the work more interesting and the service more helpful . Can just a little bit of innovation lift the perceived quality of an enterprise?

Credits: Photo from janchipchase.com.


  1. Nice thoughts Min.

    1. Yes. The context (the person, and their face, and words or defeated expression) are associated with the brand. I see this almost every day in front of Penn Station in New York City.

    2. The offer to carry the baggage -- and the ethics associated with accepting the offer or not -- may be cultural. Forgetting about the dignity of the work, I think the American culture is to pay both for what you need and the things you want. Nobody needs the service you described (not as you described it) but some may want it because it feels altruistic, or because it makes them feel superior...or both.

    3. Absolutely!

  2. Absolutely agree with Scott here.

    But as (Bengaluru a.k.a Bangalore) was mentioned, that is a phenomenon found across the length and breadth of India. In states like Kerala & West Bengal (Red States/States with a Communist ideology), porters even forcefully demand their right to earn and might just carry your baggage even if you disagree & are capable of doing so yourself.

    Also human billboards are very common too, especially in economically well to do metros like Bombay, Delhi etc. But here is where a shift might be noticed compared to the photograph above.

    In these metros, the human-billboards are mostly college kids out to earn a few extra rupees which either supplements their family income (very minimally but even that is welcome)or is pocket money which is spent on movies, eating out, the usual city entertainment. For these kids, becoming a human-billboard for a few hours a day and for a couple of days is a way to be employed till the resumption of college / school which will eventually empower them to get a comparatively permanent and a better paying job.

    Human-billboards thus is not a feasible option for the older 'employable' section. This section, even if vocationally challenged or semi-literate, tend to go in for jobs with greater stability. Human dignity for them is then only a function of earning the daily bread for their family. It's not uncommon to find relatively older men/women without a complaint, delivering parcels (courier service's and in the Indian weather it is a difficult job). They would rather have a regular paying job.

    (I hope what I said was found to be relevant & I did not end up rambling. Thank God for comment moderation :D )

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful nuggets of insight and context, @scott chapell and @sitanshu - I'm particularly intrigued by the difference in perception depending on age group, and also the notion of a "right to work/assist", brushing against a sense of self-sufficiency. More to chew on.