The Village Voice is under fire over Backpage — not the classified-jammed back page of its iconic free city newspaper, but Backpage.com, the subsidiary of Villlage Voice Media which expands its lucrative classifieds biz, warts and all, to the web. And by warts, we mean venereal warts, because Backpage.com makes a big portion of its income from adult classifieds, which have been accused of enabling human trafficking.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has been on Backpage's back over the issue, which is near and dear to his heart. And now brands are protesting too.
In Kristof's March column, "Financiers and Sex Trafficking," he highlighted the financial backers of Backpage, such as Goldman Sachs, which held a 16% stake, investing in the company in 2000 before Backpage joined VVM in a 2006 merger. “Goldman Sachs was mortified when I began inquiring last week about its stake in America’s leading Web site for prostitution ads," Kristof wrote. "It began working frantically to unload its shares, and on Friday afternoon it called to say that it had just signed an agreement to sell its stake to management.” Last month he featured a teen prostitute whose services are sold via Backpage.
Village Voice Media has defended its right to adult classifieds, but now it's starting to hit where it hurts, with advertisers pulling ads. H&M, Pfitzer Pharmaceutical, IKEA, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy and the Miami Dolphins have all joined Change.org’s campaign to pull advertisements from Village Voice Media in protest.
At heart, VVM’s adult section traffics in the sale of minors for sex. A recent study by trade group AIM Group, found that Backpage.com accounts for about 81% of all online prostitution ad revenue in the United States, amounting to more than $22 million annually.
“I’m thrilled to hear so many companies have dropped their advertisements from Village Voice Media publications,” said Justin Wassel, a minister from Columbus, Ohio who launched the campaign on Change.org. “Many of them are major national brands who cater to families and children, so it’s only natural they should be concerned about their advertisements supporting child sex trafficking.”
Another campaign launched earlier from Groundswell, a multifaith social action coalition, has received more than 235,000 petition signatures requesting VVM to shut down the adult section of Backpage.com entirely.
Celebrities, U.S. senators, and attorneys general have rallied in support, including Alicia Keys, R.E.M., Talib Kweli and Pearl Jam.
“Watching these campaigns take off on Change.org has been remarkable,” said Change.org’s Sarah Ryan. “From individuals like Justin, to the bipartisan group of senators, to Groundswell, the coalition of interfaith leaders, people are using Change.org to create real change on the issues they care about. And in doing so, they’ve empowered hundreds of thousands of others to take action and make their voices heard.”
VVM stayed under the radar of public opinion since as a private company, it’s not required to disclose ownership. Kristoff’s research identified Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey as managers of the company owning about 50% of the shares.
Companies that have discontinued advertisements: American Airlines, AT&T, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Buddy Stubbs, Carnegie Hall, Children's Wish Foundation International, Crown Imports LLC, H&M, Harkins Theatre, Harley Davidson, High Times, IKEA, Live Nation, Macy's, Miami Dolphins, MillerCoors, NY Public Radio, NYC Film Forum, Park Avenue Church, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, REI, Relativity Media, Starbucks, T-Mobile, and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center.
Companies still advertising: American Apparel, Android, Anheuser-Busch, Arizona Diamondbacks, ASPCA, Atlantic Broadband, Blick Art Materials, Buffalo Wild Wings, Champs Sports, Charter Communications, Cirque du Soleil, Colorado Mammoth Lacrosse, Dave and Busters, Foursquare, Guitar Center, H.D. Buttercup, Hard Rock Café, Harrah’s Resorts, Houston Symphony, Icelandair, IHOP, JR Electronics, KCRW, LG, Lululemon, Mesa Arts Center, MetroPCS, Minnesota Wild, Minnesota Orchestra, Monsanto, MTV2, Reliant Bank, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Seattle Art Museum, St. Louis Rams, Total Bank, US Bank, Ticketfly, Veo Optics, Walt Disney Studios, Warner Brothers, YWCA of Minneapolis, YWCA Twin Cities, and Zagat.
“Let’s be honest: Backpage’s exit from prostitution advertising wouldn’t solve the problem, for smaller Web sites would take on some of the ads. But it would be a setback for pimps to lose a major online marketplace,” Kristoff wrote in another column. “When Craigslist stopped taking such ads in 2010, many did not migrate to new sites: online prostitution advertising plummeted by more than 50 percent, according to AIM Group.”