Web Entrepreneur Banks on 'Bum-vertising'

A budding Seattle entrepreneur looking for a low-cost marketing campaign says he's found an inexpensive and highly visible tool to publicize his Web site -- he calls it "bum-vertizing."

Ben Rogovy, a 22-year-old University of Washington graduate, says the homeless and panhandlers are an untapped labor force, and he's putting them to work.

"It dawned on me this could be inexpensive and effective," he said. And he believes it's a campaign that benefits both him and the homeless people he's hired to hold signs advertizing his Web site. He said he's giving panhandlers a job and getting advertising on the cheap.

But the name he has trademarked for his marketing campaign, "bum-vertising," has some advocates for the homeless taking notice of what they say is exploitation of the people Rogovy calls his employees.

His "regulars" can be seen around Seattle, holding up green signs with a Web address on it.

"Now he's holding my sign and everybody stuck in traffic is looking at it," Rogovy said in an interview with ABC News affiliate KOMO-TV in Seattle, pointing to one of the panhandlers he has working for him.

In exchange for food, water and an undisclosed amount of cash, panhandlers agree to hold their please-give-sign and Rogovy's sign advertising his Web site, which purports to be an online directory that connects "poker players from around the globe."

One woman, who said her name was Janetta, took less than 10 seconds to say yes when Rogovy approached her about joining his "bum-vertising" team.

"Sure, why not, anything to help a budding entrepreneur," Janetta said. She told KOMO-TV she has to beg, because even though she has two other jobs, they aren't enough to pay the bills. Neighbors told KOMO-TV that Janetta begs every day and they doubt whether she really needs help.

Janetta said Rogovy's money is "easy money" -- extra cash she doesn't have to beg for.

"The one thing people don't know, this is a job this is not easy," she said, referring to panhandling.

"They're better off advertising for me than not advertising, I wish I could help them more," Rogovy said.

That was not the opinion of Nicole Macri, the co-chair of the Seattle King County Coalition for the Homeless. She said Rogovy is exploiting the panhandlers.

Rogovy said that they are adults and they can make up their own minds. But Macri argues because the panhandlers are poor, homeless and begging, "they've lost their free choice" and have no choice but to agree to Rogovy's request.

"It really reinforces stigmas about people who are homeless -- that they're not humans, that they're just signposts," Macri said.

She said the practice and the term "bumvertising" have to go. On his Web site, Rogovy also refers to his homeless employees as vagabonds and derelicts.

"Being called 'bumvertising' reinforces the idea people who are poor bring this upon themselves cause they're lazy," Macri said.

Rogovy told KOMO-TV he'd consider changing the name, but said he does not agree that he's exploiting people. Instead, he said, he believes he's doing a good thing, giving them a job.

"They claimed the term 'bum' was derogative, I'm sorry it wasn't my intention," says Rogovy.

Janetta told KOMO-TV that she does not feel exploited at all.

"No," she said. "No, 'cause he's exchanging a service for another, you know?"

But not every panhandler seems to agree. While KOMO-TV was with Rogovy, one panhandler he approached about working for him turned him down.

Rogovy's signs have been on street corners in Seattle's U-District and Wallingford neighborhoods for a month. Panhandlers will hold his signs for 30-minute shifts at a time up to 8 hours a day.

Before the campaign began, he used to get hundreds of hits a day on his Web site, he said. Now he gets thousands a day, and though he admits he's not sure and can't prove it, he thinks it's because of the signs.

ABC News affiliate KOMO-TV in Seattle contributed to this report.

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