The Marketing Arm of Human Trafficking


by Bradley Myles
Ads placed in “Erotic Services” section of craigslist in Portland, Oregonpicture-21“I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it. Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death.” – Frederick DouglassHuman traffickers are motivated by profit, and they know that human trafficking is a business, driven by the economic principles of supply and demand.  Like other businesses, traffickers need to engage in effective marketing in order to reach potential customers.  What most people don’t realize, however, is the degree to which traffickers are using legitimate sources to advertise. 

This need to advertise is particularly pressing for sex traffickers who force, deceive, or threaten victims into the commercial sex trade.  They make their money from “johns” who pay for sex, and they want to reach as many buyers as possible to maximize profits.

Bold-faced sex traffickers will advertise in the largest possible news sources where they can get away with it.  For example, in our work since 2002, we can confirm with certainty that human trafficking operations are using craigslist, The Washington Post, and many other prominent news sources across the country to advertise their operations.   The burden then turns on legitimate businesses to not let them.

When presented with these truths, these reputable businesses face a choice: they can either turn a blind eye, continue to allow the ads, and knowingly become what Sonia Ossorio of the New York chapter of NOW calls “the marketing arm of human trafficking,” or they can have a bit of courage, stand in solidarity with our collective movement against human trafficking, and disallow the ads.

Polaris Project and other partner anti-trafficking organizations are reaching out to these reputable businesses to invite their collaboration and engage in a dialogue about the ads.

We’ve recently requested a meeting with executives from The Washington Post to discuss how sex trafficking operations are paying for daily advertising in the Sports pages, and how some of the businesses that they have advertised have actually been busted by the FBI and local law enforcement for human trafficking.

We also sent a letter to Jim Buckmaster, CEO of craigslist, inviting him and his colleagues to meet with us to discuss opportunities to fight the presence of sex trafficking in the erotic services of the site.  For many years, we’ve worked with victims of human trafficking in our direct service efforts who told us about the violent, threatening, and deceitful tactics of their trafficker, and how that same trafficker was putting up advertisements of them on craigslist each day.  This week, with the surge of attention about the “craigslist killer,” both The Boston Globe and The New York Times ran prominent articles where Polaris Project’s Executive Director, Ambassador Mark Lagon, was quoted about craigslist’s “erotic services” section.

And we have ideas for how you can look in your local paper to learn how sex traffickers are advertising there too.  Stay tuned!

Some will say that if these businesses discontinue the ads, the ads will just migrate somewhere else.   They are likely correct, but having prestigious news sources and local papers across the country discontinue the ads would not only send a clear message to traffickers and to society, they would also immediately cut off large-scale advertising channels that these traffickers use to reach the highest volumes of johns.

Others may argue that it’s good to keep the ads on craigslist because craigslist cooperates with law enforcement to facilitate criminal investigations of traffickers.  Although craigslist’s cooperation is laudable, the sheer volume of “erotic services” ads posted each day far outweighs the number of times that law enforcement can intervene. Put another way, sex traffickers and johns are benefiting more than law enforcement is, and the ads do more harm than good.

The battle against human trafficking needs to be fought on many fronts, and marketing and advertising sources have an important role to play.   I’m confident that when enough people learn the truth about what abuse is actually happening behind these ads, we’ll see a day when the Sports pages of The Washington Post are free from these ads, and the craigslist “erotic services” haven for sex traffickers is done and gone.

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