If you look up the term “objectification of women” in your college dictionary, you’ll probably see a definition illustrated by a photograph of a tall, slender, blond woman wearing skimpy shorts and a tight t-shirt, standing next to a table stacked with plastic cell phone carrying cases. Recently, there’s been a lot of hubbub over these hired guns who stand at booths set up at the trade shows that are dominated by men. The video game shows, the technology shows, the car shows.
In an interview with the BBC, Gary Shapiro, the head of the CEA, which is the association that runs the Consumer Electronics Show, made some comments about the unfortunate necessity of booth babes. Surprisingly, Gizmodo published an editorial taking Shapiro to task. Let that sink in for a moment. Gizmodo. Arguing against booth babes. The same Gizmodo that published a story a week earlier in which one of their writers dances awkwardly with a couple of models who clearly would rather be elsewhere. Now, I’m not criticizing Gizmodo. I like that site and their coverage. I like that they have a variety of editorial voices, on both sides of an issue. I think that highlights the complicated nature of the problem.
Gary Shapiro tried to respond by apologizing. He did a fair job, but it’s hard to say the right thing on the Internet, and in the interest of brevity, I think some of his nuance was off. He’s taken to task in the comments forum on AutoStraddle, and I think it’s fair to say we’ve beaten up Gary enough for one day. There’s always tomorrow. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so let’s see if CEA adopts any formal policies toward booth babes before the next CES rolls around next year.
There’s really no civil way to argue in favor of booth babes, though I may try, if you’ll indulge. I’d like to offer a slightly different perspective on booth babes, one of power and weakness.
Is there something wrong with hiring an attractive person to lure people toward your products? Maybe, but not in this way. I have a much bigger problem with the retouching, airbrushing and special effects that go into television commercials and print magazine ads than I do with models in person. In person, the women who work as booth models are undeniably attractive, and perhaps dressed in ways that would be inappropriate for the average attendee. But they aren’t impossible. They aren’t a false version of what a woman or man can look like.
Okay, I threw that one in to be PC. I did not see any male booth models at CES, so I’m just going to drop that pretense.
In any case, saying that a company should not hire attractive models for their booth is also saying that an attractive person should not find gainful employment as a booth model. That seems wrong, too. I’m sure there are physiological studies that measure the response in humans when they see a person they deem attractive. The Consumer Electronics Show is a giant advertisement. The booths exist explicitly to attract your attention. I have no moral objection to a woman working as a model, so why would I have a problem with a company hiring a woman to help showcase a product line?
Well, I’ll tell you why I have a problem with it. Booth babes make me uncomfortable. I know there are guys at the show who enjoy the booth babes, perhaps too much. I’m not a sleazeball. I don’t pinch or squeeze strangers. I don’t hand out my room key to just anyone I meet. I don’t flirt at trade shows. When I’m at a trade show, I’m working. I’m focused on my topic. Booth babes have an inherent sexuality to them, and this isn’t the venue for it.
When I get home from CES, I inevitably have three groups of photos. I have my product shots from the show floor. I have my candid shots hanging out with friends and touring the Vegas strip. And I have the booth babe shots, which are something like the photographs in National Geographic. They serve to document, not titillate. I show them to friends as an illustration of what I did and what I saw. But of those three groups of photos, guess which pile is the largest?
The product shots. Remember, I’m working. Then, the scenery. I could snap the fountains at the Bellagio for hours on end. Finally, the smallest group is the booth babes. This year, I didn’t take a single booth babe shot.
As a man, I’m embarrassed to take photos of the booth babes, or with the booth babes. I’m embarrassed to stop and stare at them. When I do talk to them, I’m often annoyed because they don’t have the information I need. They aren’t paid very well, so they aren’t trained in the nuances of the products. They don’t know which processor is in that phone, or how large the battery is in mAh. This is in no way their fault, or a reflection on them as individuals. It’s not their job to know.
I want to talk to the other people. The people who do make it their job to know.
It’s time to give up on the booth babes. Make an attractive product and people will come to it. Make an interesting pitch and people will listen. If you have to rely on booth babes to sell, you might want to question what you’re selling, and to whom. And if you’re an attendee and you feel the booth babes are a necessity of the show, I might suggest another place where you can find all the pictures of attractive people you desire. It’s called the Internet. You’re looking at it right now.