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The Painted Ladies of CES – The booth babe controversy meets social media

This January marks the first year in quite some time that I haven’t spent a week out in Las Vegas with my tech colleagues sweating our way through another at CES. While following the show closely via every conceivable social channel, it seems like one thing hasn’t changed — the ongoing controversy over “Booth Babes.” Its now met its match in social media.

Since the world’s first trade show, marketers have tried to make their booths stand out among a crowded show floor.  Doing this at CES is even more challenging as the sole mission of every company there to assault the audio/visual senses (oh, and you’re in the heart of downtown Las Vegas, where “subtle” doesnt really play anyway). So to some extent, you can see why people will often go over board in an attempt to capture even a little of the spotlight. The 2013 hoopla was sparked when Mashable reporter Emily Price tweeted out this (maybe NSFW) picture of body-painted “fembots.”

This year, however, people decided to do something about it and began utilizing various social media platforms and hash-tagging their post of protest with the clever #notbuyingit. The clever double entendre, (originally created byMissrepresntaion.org ) is intended to show both disdain for the practice and a lack of willingness to purchase from vendors. Undoubtedly this means that many marketing VP’s will be updating their LinkedIn status following the show.

The movement is gaining a following too – as of 1/11, #notbuyingit had generated over 736K impressions and more than 380K followers in just 24 hours. A few samples include:
Jan 11 Andre Prime ‏@dreprime

Please stop dehumanizing women to sell your products @HyperMac. http://www.missrepresentation.org/?p=11103  I’m #NotBuyingItimage001.png

Jan 11 Caroline Heldman ‏@carolineheldmanI’m so tired of “booth babes” at Tech shows. There has to be a better way to attract people to your booth. It’s 2013 dammit! #notbuyingit

11 Jan Jessica Lee ‏@jessicallee
Watching the ad campaigns coming out of #CES2013 is nauseating. Can you not sell tech w/o naked women?! #NotBuyingIt

11 Jan cindy vy huynh ‏@cinnie_vy
If your product is good, you don’t need sexism to sell it. Stop dehumanizing women. @HyperMac. http://www.missrepresentation.org/?p=11103  I’m #NotBuyingIt

11 Jan Stephen Foskett ‏@SFoskett
(Don’t) Make Your Startup Look Stupid With Booth Babes And Chotchkies! (A timely repost) #NotBuyingIt http://bit.ly/VSDXaG

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, as last year a similar hub-bub grew out of  a BBC reporter asking Gary Shapiro an off-handed remark about the ladies who adorn the convention hall.The net result of that conversation apparently had little effect on this year crop of exhibitor.

Shapiro’s final take (spin though it may be) in 2012 was probably a lot more telling and important than how a marginally successful hard drive company tries to stand out on the show floor. The real tragedy of CES isn’t how people choose to market their goods, rather, the fact is our nation and industry suffer from too few women scientists, engineers, mathematicians and IT professionals.”

Here’s my post from CES 2102

______________________

CES/Las Vegas Jan 2012 – Demo dolly, booth babes, hostess, models…Whatever you call them. They are a staple at male-oriented tradeshows and have been around since the guy who stood on soap box to sell snake oil discovered his crowd grew with a pretty lady assistant.

I had come back from CES with a bunch of cool blog ideas (blogging from there while working 19 hour days wasn’t going to happen). And while I may still post a lot of them, an interesting thing caught my eye. It seems that Gary Shapiro, the head of the CEA (the company that runs CES, the largest consumer electronics show in the world) recently stepped in a hole on this issue when he was approached by a BBC reporter to ask about the phenomenon and what it meant to the industry. http://gizmodo.com/ces/

“Well, sometimes it is a little old school, but it does work,” Shapiro tells the BBC. “People naturally want to go towards what they consider pretty. So your effort to try to get a story based on booth babes, which is decreasing rather rapidly in the industry, and say that it’s somehow sexism imbalancing, it’s cute but it’s frankly irrelevant in my view.”

I’ve been in PR and have actually overseen trade show programs for several clients and employers for nearly two decades.  I’d say I’ve been to nearly 100 trade shows myself and I’ve observed that the booth babe phenomenon definitely differs based on the audience of the show.

  • At the National Hardware show in Chicago, the booth babe is rampant, with several wearing cutoff jeans and tied up flannels. She is often seen painting, or hammering, but there is usually a lot of bending over (Note, I haven’t been to this show in 10 years. This may have changed)
  • At medical and healthcare trade shows (often called conferences to make the boondoggle to Scottsdale in March seem more academic) they are all but non-existent , although companies will often (misguidedly) hire professional presenters and put them in lab coats
  • At the PGA and other golf shows I’ve been too, the booth babe is very subtle and very conservative (like golf itself), and often (legitimately) there to model the golf apparel. It always seems to be tight or short apparel though.
  • The more edgy fashion and apparel drive shows (such as the World Footwear Association and the uber-hip MAGIC) don’t discriminate and you’re as likely to find a shirtless man as you are women in see-through top.

Many tailored their presentation to their brand and customers, the Audi hostesses were all about 6′ tall blondes with straight hair, who wore “sensible” 4 inch heels and Kate Middleton-inspired blue dresses. The mid-level distributor of “club” sound systems took a different approach as their models were heavy on the makeup, tattoos, and short on clothing. Picture a race scene from the Fast and the Furious.

Booth Babe etiquette also seemed to differ based along cultural lines.  Asian models were popular at booths that attracted mostly Asian men, and brunettes seemed to be in play more at American and South American booths.

Does this mean all Audi drivers are blonde-germans looking to forward their giant race?  Or that all club goers want to buy from vendors who look like extras from Jersey Shore? Of course not.

Marketers are still gauging a lot of their efforts to the basest of human interests. Am I going to trust a television vendor’s technology more because they have a scantily clad woman handing me a flyer? No, of course not, but she might grab my attention and poof! I discover a new technology vendor.  Or, she may offend my sensibility so much that I dismiss a firm that might be a true asset to me and my organization.

Shapiro amended his remarks later saying “The fact is our nation and industry suffer from too few women scientists, engineers, mathematicians and IT professionals. Being married to a surgeon, I have some understanding of the hurdles that women face in what some call a traditionally male profession. But I am also mindful that companies market as they choose and the market determines their success.”

I’d be interested to hear what a woman’s perspective on this is. Does it bother you? Do you see it as business as usual? Do you pity the Demo Dolly? Or is she a non-factor? Let me know.

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