Lazy, dumb, angry, drug addicts. These are just a few adjectives used to describe homeless people. As the homeless continue to populate the streets often living as vagabonds, they are represented in media through various forms, television, music, and movies to name a few. However, what if there was a way to show the stories of the homeless, whole simultaneously getting them revenue? Representations of homelessness are in some cases both positive and negative, but they do not capture the essence of what homelessness is. Duplicating the experiences of a homeless individual is nearly impossible. Reproducing the raw emotion and psychological experiences of someone who has to travel every night for shelter would be miraculous. Therefore, instead of making it a pressing issue that needs to be addressed, much of society develops complacent attitudes towards homelessness and that is ethically problematic. Homelessness is a multifaceted experience that is seen all around me, especially because I live in Los Angeles, California.
Homelessness impacts those who do not have a residence they can afford to sleep nightly. Many of the homeless actually have jobs, but their income is unstable or too minimal to pay for anything other than food, water and clothing. It is estimated that 100 million people across the globe are homeless (United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Millions of homeless people live all over the world in different environments and societies. For example, some people live outdoors places like parks, college campuses, and coffee shops. Some individuals move from shelters, to motels, to boardinghouses, while some even live in underground tunnels. “Two factors help account for increasing poverty: eroding employment opportunities for large segments of the work force and the declining value and availability of public assistance” (National Coalition for the Homeless).
Entrepreneur Ben Rogovy, a graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in economics, uses homeless people to advertise for an online gaming website (strategicdomination.com ironic title huh?). He sees it as a cheap and effective marketing strategy, but it also calls for the homeless to be employees of the company in a minimal way. He and his colleagues go into various neighborhoods looking for homeless people. They usually go to areas in Seattle, Washington or where their advertisements can be seen in greater number. When they find someone, they ask them to attach a business advertisement to their cardboard signs, and in return Rogovy will provide them with food and or money. He then films them with the signs, but also asks them about various homeless experiences. Many of the stories the homeless tell are raw and vivid descriptions of how they feel about being homeless. The videos are then posted on a website run by Rogovy called “Bumvertising.”
Check it out: http://www.bumvertising.com/
The practices of Rogovy have sparked debate, as some believe his ideas are brilliant, while other individuals are livid with his actions. For example, on his website he has a public opinion section and one comment reads, “I support your actions. Your creative thinking should be praised. I would be interested in what the ‘coalition’ is doing to support those they claim to represent.” While another says, “You shit-faced scum-bag. Go fuck yourself”.
We have an individual, in Rogovy, who saw an opportunity to promote his business and capitalized on it, but at what ethical implication? The moral theories of utility, duty, virtue, care and justice can be examined here. Utility is characterized by the greatest good for the greatest number. There is no doubting the fact that homeless people number in the hundreds of millions worldwide. This type of advertising activity benefits a great number of homeless people, if they are willing to paste other signs on their panhandling signs. They are already advertising, so in that regard another line that has a company website will publicize both the company and their “begging strategy.”
Is it the moral duty of Rogovy to use homeless people as advertising specimens? Duty is not concerned with the consequences as much as the means. Therefore, the use of homeless individuals as advertisers is not justifiable. He does not have a moral obligation to have them participate in advertising for his companies, nor do they have a moral obligation to him.
Is it virtuous for Rogovy to have his advertisements on the signs of homeless people? It is difficult to find a golden mean in this situation. On one had, we are faced with the idea that more people will become aware of homelessness through videos and advertising signs. On the other hand, the idea that these are the same people who do not have a consistent place to sleep at night is unsettling. It is uncertain how many products, or what quantity of revenue the homeless people are receiving for these types of business deals. Ideally, if Rogovy could promote homeless awareness while simultaneously creating revenue for the homeless and his business, then everyone benefits.
However, what about the ideas of care and justice? Care, spawning from the Judeo Christian movement advocate love of our neighbors as we would love ourselves. It is commonly known as the golden rule. I wonder how Rogovy would feel if he were homeless and approached with a video camera and then asked to advertise for a company, but again, duplicating the experiences of a homeless person is difficult. There could be a sense of desperation that lives in a homeless person to take what opportunities they can get. However, there are videos on the “Bumvertising” website that show homeless people complaining and attacking Rogovy and his team. One man was angered that he came to film them in their desolation. Maybe that was before Rogovy was able to pitch his advertising opportunity!
Justice is rooted in egalitarian based thinking and therefore should urge Rogovy to take his idea of homeless advertisement above and beyond simply putting his website on the cardboard boxes of those less fortunate. He had the privilege to attend a four-year university and to attain an education that many of the homeless people he encounters did not have the opportunity to experience. They are not on the same playing field and will probably never be, but Rogovy can do more to help them. He can open up a shelter, help them find other jobs, and he can get them access to resources they would otherwise not have access to. He is using them as a greater resource than he is being for them, and that is unjust and ultimately unethical. I do believe that Ben Rogovy’s strategy is brilliant, but I recommend that he become more proactive in their lives. We can work together to make the lives of those who experience homelessness better, and the sky is the limit when people can work together. Bridging the gap between the rich in poor is an issue that needs to be addressed, Rogovy might be on to something, but he does not have it perfected yet.