Village Voice Media got more pressure to shutter the adult section of Backpage.com, its online classifieds website, yesterday.
Groundswell, a social action initiative of Auburn Seminary, ran a full-page ad in the New York Times, saying, "We agree with 51 Attorneys General. Girls and boys should not be sold for sex on Village Voice Media’s Backpage.com."
The open letter to Village Voice Media CEO Jim Larkin and its board of directors charged the site has been used to sell minors for sex.
"While we empathize with your business challenges and the increasingly difficult marketplace in which Village Voice Media competes," the letter went on, "we trust that you are committed to running your business without compromising the lives of our nation's boys and girls."
Therein lies the rub.
So-called adult advertising has been the mainstay of alternative weeklies since the Berkeley Barb. (That radical weekly, founded in 1965, according to Wikipedia, went out of business in 1980, two years after spinning off its sex ads business into a separate pub.)
AIM Group, an interactive media consultancy, estimates that Backpage.com generated $2.1 million in revenue from "online prostitution advertising" in August 2011, a 50 percent increase from the $1.4 million it generated in August 2010. AIM Group tallies the total online revenue generated by sex ads from September 2010 through August 2011 at $33.8 million.
But total online sex ad revenue is down more than 50 percent, AIM Group said, after Craigslist eliminated its adult services ads a year ago. Craigslist declined to comment for this story.
Village Voice Media responded to the Groundswell ad on its own website, writing, "Backpage.com is a digital classified site with an adult component that is attempting to be part of the solution. And we remain open to the possibility of conversation with these religious leaders." The company did not respond to calls or emails requesting comment.
In September 2010, 21 attorneys general asked Backpage.com to squelch adult ads.
In a Sept. 23 letter to the National Association of Attorneys General, or NAAG, which also requested the end to adult advertising, Village Voice Media's attorney said the company "understands and shares the concerns of the Attorneys General and pledged to work cooperatively with law enforcement."
It pointed out that, in addition to cooperating with sting operations and promptly responding to subpoenas, the company uses aggressive content moderation and content filtration. It's also worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to develop logarithmic screens that filter terms that propose illegal transactions.
In the letter, Village Voice Media requested a meeting with the organization to "help chart a meaningful course, congruent with the law and with the critical importance of the Pillars of Hope Presidential Initiative to stop child trafficking."
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Susan Kuchinskas has covered interactive advertising since its invention. The former staff writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, and M-Business covers technology, business and culture from Berkeley, CA.
March 19, 2014