Where a woman’s place is in a bikini, not a lab coat

Women and men trying to change environment of trade shows, where ‘booth babes’ lure men to the sales floor

A model poses next to a car surrounded by visitors on the opening day of the Shanghai auto show last April. Detractors of the practice say that models often get more attention than the products they are supposed to help promote.
Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

They pose next to cars at auto shows.

They entice customers to booths at trade shows.

They promote the latest products at pot shops.

Typically, they’re women. They’re often scantily clad. And they are, in a word, hot.

Using sex and women to sell to men is still a sales technique, even some 50 years after second-wave feminism focused on equality for women in the workplace.

But the models hired as “booth babes” may not bring in as much business as a professional, one tech expert says.

And the use of sexy models objectifies all women, including female customers and industry professionals.

“Sex still sells, and that’s why they do it,” said Mara Einstein, a professor of media studies at Queens College at the City University of New York. “Men still like to look at pretty women.”

Those pretty women present problems for professional women.

“If you’re a senior woman or a professional woman and you’re in an environment where women are being objectified to sell products, that makes it difficult for you to be treated seriously,” said Kate McCarthy, director of SheSource for the Women’s Media Center.

 Just ask Alicia Gibb.

The one time she attended the annual Consumer Electronics Show, Gibb wore a gray T-shirt, a lab coat and jeans like the rest of her team on the exhibit floor.

Despite being the research and development director for Bug Labs, many men mistook her for something else: a booth babe.

Talking tech, getting groped

“Guys would come up to me, and they would assume I didn’t know anything about the product,” said Gibb, 33, now an independent technologist and self-described hardware hacker. “They would instantly go to pickup lines.”

They even grabbed her rear.

“It happened at least several times a day.”

Gibb hasn’t returned to CES since.

She did, however, sign a petition calling for a booth-babe ban at CES.

CES is the largest consumer electronics show in the world and is held in Las Vegas each January. In 2013 the show sparked a backlash when one exhibitor used models dressed in nothing more than bikini bottoms and body paint.

The show revised its booth guidelines for 2014. The 2015 exhibitor contract stipulates that “personnel must be dressed appropriately” and that CES “reserves the right to exclude the showing of film, photos, games or other software in the exhibit area which are deemed objectionable, including explicit or simulated sex, nudity or violence.”

The Geek Feminism Wiki offers sample language prohibiting sexualized conduct and attire for booth staff in its recommended conference anti-harassment policy, and many conferences have adopted such language.

Still, this year’s CES booth babes were considered alluring enough for to offer a photo gallery and for The Verge to ask “Why can’t CES quit booth babes?” — with photos, of course.

What about business?

Spencer Chen is a marketer in the startup world, and he has also worked for IBM and Intel.

So he’s one of those folks who help organize the trade show booths. Several years ago, he had the opportunity to conduct an experiment. The results surprised him.

With two booths at a show, Chen hired traditional attractive models for one. For the other, he asked for local women with a business background who were skilled at making conversation. He specified that he didn’t care about looks.

“We kind of were asking for non–booth babes,” he said. “We were just blown away from day one. These two gals took their work very seriously. What they did that we didn’t see in the booth babes is that they had more depth. They were marketing professionals who knew how to engage and hold someone.”

Chen, 41, said that for most businesses, hiring scantily clad models doesn’t attract the sort of customer they want or produce productive business leads. They tend to attract lower-level employees with little buying power.

The women selected for how they look “produce about a third of the foot traffic and half the leads” of the ones who are professionals in their fields, he said.

Sondra Irwin, president of Preferred Promotional Model and Talent Group, counters that trade show models are often trained about company products in advance. Her 22-year-old company provides models in more than 20 cities around the country.

Our agency is more of the educated trade show model, hostess, presenter,” Irwin said. “They have a little bit more than standing there with the looks. But they are attractive … The looks will get the attendees in, but then they have to be able to speak.”

It isn’t just tech

Two models at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in 2010.

Irwin’s firm lists events beyond technology conferences where her models work, including auto shows, farm machinery shows, medical events and more.

Even the burgeoning cannabis industry appears to be following the tech industry lead when it comes to using women to sell.

Betty Aldworth is the executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and has worked on marijuana policy for several years, especially in terms of public relations.

“There’s one specific audience to whom sex sells, and it’s to men, often young men,” she said. “Is it anyone’s right to advertise exclusively to men? Sure. But ultimately it demeans our entire movement.”

Aldworth agrees with Chen that there are business arguments to be made for avoiding the booth babe phenomenon, including “not alienating half of America.”

“Colorado businesses could double the number of women that they serve if women embraced cannabis the way men embrace cannabis,” she said.

CUNY’s Einstein said the use of sexy models isn’t a factor in some industries, just those that believe their clientele is mostly male.

“If you go to the Book Expo, you don’t see that there,” she said. “You see it in more of the kind of glamour products and products that need almost borrowed interest in terms of their brand identity.”

But using women to promote such brands isn’t necessarily effective, Chen said.

 “You remember the booth babes. You don’t remember the company.”

Progress in the works

Aldworth frequently talks to marijuana business owners about the need to include and not objectify women, and she said the industry is listening.

"As the market continues to mature, we will see even less” use of sex to sell, she said. “It’s a conversation we need to be having.”

When Women’s Media Center had a booth at CTIA mobile conference a few years ago, what Kate McCarthy saw on the expo floor concerned her.

“You saw things like men getting pictures taken with their arms draped around these women,” she said. “It made me uncomfortable and it made other women uncomfortable as well.”

So McCarthy talked with an acquaintance at the organization about the issue.

“He said, ‘Come and run a panel,’ “ McCarthy said. “I do believe they’re trying to get more women, though in my mind they’re not quite trying hard enough.”

Chen wrote about his experiment using anti-babes for TechCrunch in January.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Chen said. “Everyone said to me, ‘Thanks for saying this.’ Now they had a business angle to go about making their case.”

As for Gibb, she’s involved in the Ada Initiative to support women in technology.

And she started her own nonprofit, the Open Hardware Association, and affiliated conference, the Open Hardware Summit.

“We haven’t had anyone show up with anything inappropriate yet, and hopefully we won’t,” Gibb said.

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