Poor Ben Rogovy. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. He saw homeless men in his Seattle neigbourhood standing holding signs asking for money. A lightbulb went on. Why not get them to hold signs that advertised something!? “Bumvertising” was born.

The idea got big coverage after it was lampooned on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (Follow the link and then click on “Face for Rent.”)

Critics have called Bumvertising “exploitative.” The Daily Show segment used the word “unscrupulous.”

Clearly the name “Bumvertising” was ill-chosen. “Bum” is a rather dated, generally offensive term for homeless people (typically men). So, let’s take it as a given that Rogovy should think about re-branding.

OK, but seriously. What really is wrong with Bumvertising, other than its unfortunate name? Rogovy is doing more to help the homeless than the vast majority of us do. Are the homeless the only ones left who aren’t allowed to be corporate shills? Perhaps the homeless shouldn’t have to do this kind of work. Indeed, and it would be better still if the homeless weren’t homeless at all. But isn’t criticizing Bumvertising sort of a case of letting the best be the enemy of the good? How is putting a sign, and a few dollars, in a homeless man’s hands different from a corporation putting a few thousand dollars, and a corporate logo, on an under-funded theatre troupe’s marquee? So long as no one’s being asked to do anything particularly demeaning (and I just can’t see holding a small sign as demeaning) it hardly seems “exploitative.”

Here, Rogovy defends himself quite ably.

And here’s a pretty good story about the debate, in the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

3 comments so far

  1. Adam on

    One thing that seems “critically” absent here may be the instances of increased violence due to territorial conflicts. Street advertisers have basically no legal claim to the locations they draw their revenues by other than general politeness or more likely…turf violence & conflict. One might counter with, “Its not a issue yet” and I’d say, just give it time and all the prime spots will be taken, hence the conflicts will begin.

    Resolve this looming problem and I see little to no argument in Bumvertising… Otherwise it is quite exploitative!

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Are you saying there actually HAS been such violence among Bumvertisers??


      • Adam on

        Would it matter Chris??

        My main point was that without tangible location claims or vendor protections Bumvertisers “reasonably” stand eventual if not current turf conflicts. I believe its vary easy for the “profiting parties” to turn a blind eye or remain silent to this issue Chris. Silence does not make it ethical or more good than bad… it just makes it sad in this case.

        Bumvertising gets cheap labor and AD revenue (good), people selling stuff get a voice (good), bums get a little more cash (good) and a “likely” target on their backs (real real bad). A better less exploitative business model “should” take that into account and make “reasonable” protections to their much more vulnerable associates… right??

        Solve that with a real working solution other than using typical corporate denial or head in the sand questions posed as a defense and you got a new convert… reasonable enough huh??


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