An item pulled off the Seattle P-I caught my eye because of the headline: 'Bumvertising stirs debate.' I suppose that immediately buttresses the claim to fame of Seattleite Ben Rogovy, who asserts to have invented the term. He's certainly popularized it, appearing as radio fodder for weeks now, and graduating next week to the big Daddy of quirk, John Stewart. But more interesting than the name is the concept of hiring the homeless to advertise, and the socioeconomic dynamics of what Rogovy is doing.
It's rather clear from his website description that he's not exactly winning the "hand up, not hand out" award. You don't get the sense of caring or even interest in who's holding his signs, but I don't suppose the typical CEO gives much thought to his employees either, so it's not like exploitation on the cheap is limited to temping the homeless.
Where Rogovy does it it's legal, so there's really only an ethical question at stake: is it taking advantage of people begging on the street to use them as billboards for money? Although I'm pretty sensitive to the treatment of the homeless by the community, I'm pretty sure I don't have a problem with it. Should he give the people more money, and think of them as something besides 'derelicts?' You bet. Is this anything more than a transient (!) business relationship between a homeless person and a guy running about two years two late on the internet poker thing? No. And besides, you do see fully employed people standing out their in sandwich boards or waving "Free gordita" signs at cars. Sure they're getting paid at least minimum wage, but they have to do more than sit where they always sit, and beg for change like they normally do. That's not much of a gig. (Or maybe it is, in Portland).
This isn't the first time someone's involved the homeless in advertising, speaking of Portland. Two years earlier, Andre Jehan of Pizza Schmizza (Rogovy, take note of the superior business model) gave homeless people free pizza and beverages, plus cash in order to hold a sign. The move generated even more publicity two years ago than Rogovy's less elegant idea, which makes it odd that the P-I wouldn't even bring it up in the new story--especially since they ran an article themselvses. An interesting criticism is here; Schmizza should have done more than Jehan did if they really wanted to help the homeless. On the other hand, two people enter into whatever contracts they like, and it's not clear what other charitable pursuits Jehan and Schmizza are involved in.
The more salient criticism in my mind is the aesthetic and commercial overload they create downtown. Every good "country boy goes city" movie of the 50s has a guy sitting on his hotel windowsill or walking the streets of the big down, dazzled to distraction by the lights. And usually later in the film, disillusioned by the glamour the lights take on a garishness and pervasiveness that creates a kind of urban anomie.
Deep philosophy aside, I might be tempted to grab a slice of what really is pretty good pizza. I'm still having trouble remembering Rogovy's company name. Point, pizza.
PS--As long as we're talking about the underbelly of Seattle life, three cheers to a federal judge for letting the strip clubs flow from the faucet of naughtiness once again in Seattle. A 17-year moratorium on stripatoriums has ended. This is one area where Oregon, particularly Portland, is a national leader--so feel free to come down and take notes, Seattle entrepreneurs! Stumptowners like Bush if it's being pushed in your face for a dollar while you drink microbrews and play video poker. And speaking of exploitation for tips...