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Ad campaign gets handle on panhandlers

Pizza company hires homeless to hold its signs

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Instead of going Dumpster-diving for maybe a half-eaten sandwich and some cold fries, Peter Schoeff, a 20-year-old homeless man, was served a slice of hot pizza dripping with cheese.

All he had to do was hold a sign for about 40 minutes that read: "Pizza Schmizza paid me to hold this sign instead of asking for money."

In a tactic that calls to the mind the hiring of unemployed men during the Depression to wear sandwich-board advertisements, a Portland pizza chain has hired homeless people off the street to promote the product. They are paid in pizza, soda and a few dollars.

"I think it's a fair trade," Schoeff said. "We're career panhandlers, that's the only other way we can get money."

The signs were meant to be humorous, said Andre Jehan, founder of Pizza Schmizza, a 26-restaurant business in Oregon and Washington.

"People don't have to feel guilty, while still appreciating the person is homeless. It's a gesture of kindness more than anything," he said.

From the sandwich board to cigarette girls to aerial banners, companies are forever searching for creative means to reach customers.

The search has become more frenetic lately as advertisers try to break through what is known in the industry as "ad clutter" — the way people are bombarded by commercial messages from all sides.

An ad agency in London, Cunning Stunts Communications Ltd., has recruited students to wear temporary tattoos on their foreheads while hanging out at bars or trendy stores. Sony Ericsson, the cell phone company, has hired models to lounge at tourist attractions and play with a mobile phone to make the gadget look attractive. Beach 'N' Billboards Inc. of New Jersey used a steamrollerlike machine to imprint ads for Snapple iced tea on the beach.

Schmizza has also tried handing out fake parking tickets with pizza coupons, and putting up fake election placards reading "Elect Schmizza for Dinner."

Gary Ruskin, director of Portland-based Commercial Alert, an advertising watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader, said homeless people acting as billboards should be paid minimum wage, or else they are being exploited. And he complained that the practice adds to ad clutter.

"People don't want to get hammered with an ad every time they turn their head," he said. "Most advertising is either somewhat of a lie or deceptive, and it's an assault on our attention."

Jehan said the idea sprang from the guilt he felt passing homeless people begging for money.

"I got tired of not being able to make eye contact with these people. I thought, 'What skills could they have?' Holding a sign was an obvious one," he said.

Nate Sandall, an analyst at Standard Insurance, grinned as he passed Schoeff and his sign. "It's unusual, it's creative. At least they aren't asking me for change," he said. "Now, if every business did this, it would get old in a hurry."