Booth Babes: iCandy or iScream?
Writing about booth babes, the skimpily or tightly dressed hired models (almost always women) who try to lure in trade-show attendees to learn more about a firm’s products and services, puts one into contortions. Can we write about the seemingly unnecessary titillation that such babes add to an event without also falling into the trap of promoting some kind of tease? Probably not. Note this photo by Jeff Carlson, for instance, which displays attractive women in close-fitting (and uncomfortable, one of them reported in the ladies’ room with Tonya Engst nearby) shiny purple jumpsuits, but also illustrates the extremely unpleasant marketing tactic of having a 2D bar code attached to these women’s backsides, and the company’s logo
appearing at their waists. Not subtle, that, but are we engaging in the same approach we’re deploring?
My intent here is to inform with a little provocation, and to create the same kind of cognitive dissonance many of us experienced in person as you see the pictures and then read the words. At the Economist’s Babbage blog, I wrote an account (“Silicon Implants”) of the bizarreness of seeing so much skin and tight clothing this year at Macworld | iWorld, which traditionally attracts a more even male/female ratio, and
not the sort of men who might consider CES or a boat show akin to a boys’ night on the town. This year was no different. As I counted informally, I saw a trade-show audience of roughly 60-40 in the favor of men, but more 50-50 across booth staff, excluding the leggy models.
Comments on my Economist piece are all over the place and instructive, whether they agree or not. My complaint isn’t that attractive people are trying to get me to pay attention to their products. Rather, my point is that companies that rely on models whose various assets are stress-testing spandex or exposed to air are trying so hard that they fail. Not all attention is good, since it highlights to women attending the show that these products are not for them, as well as driving off men who find being so blatantly manipulated distasteful.
Let’s be blunt. Dressing up women in such artificially sexy outfits sends the message that these women are available for sex. They are not. Nearly all men know this, although that apparently doesn’t stop some of the less socialized from asking. But for nearly all men, this is where the cognitive dissonance comes in, as the male hind brain (“Sex!”) fights it out with more-evolved neural pathways (“Cool industrial design!”). There were plenty of booths with good-looking, well-dressed women (and men!) that employed traditional marketing tactics of being appealing and inviting, listening to and answering questions knowledgeably, and behaving in a positive and upbeat manner. I gravitated there.
Traci Dauphin at Cult of Mac wrote an article in which she interviewed some of the models at the show and explained what it’s like to be living in their skins. It’s revealing, and useful insight. As I suspected, the booth babes (who naturally hate that term, forcing me to question whether I’m intentionally denigrating them by using it) are typically well compensated and treat a trade show gig like any other professional work. They know their job is to bring in attendees who might otherwise miss the product, to the benefit of the company that’s paying to use their faces and bodies. It is also no surprise that Traci’s
article about the models is chock full of tasteful photos of them, which will attract traffic to the piece.
It’s difficult to tease out the problem here. I’m not offended by the models making a living, nor am I suggesting that the IDG World Expo show management take action — setting a dress code that enforces how tight a dress can be worn (or how short skirts can be) would be pointless and provocative. It seems to me a matter of the vendors taking stock of whether or not the tactic is sufficiently effective to cancel out the negatives, and especially to determine if the attractive women serve as a repulsive force. Adam Engst told me that he steered clear of booths surrounded by these models purely on the basis of being made to feel uncomfortable and knowing they wouldn’t be able to answer his detailed questions.
I also present for your consideration the excellent work done by About-Face, a California-based non-profit whose goal is to teach girls and women how to resist the constant barrage of media messages that batter self esteem and body image. The group is run by Jennifer Berger, a long-time friend of TidBITS and a former Macworld editor.
[Update: I would also point to this post by Jessie Char, who staffed the Delicious Monster booth at Macworld Expo in 2009. She and two colleagues, all of them regular employees of the firm (which makes personal library management software), came up with and executed on the idea of the booth. They dressed attractively, showing a moderate amount of skin. They were also product experts. Jessie writes of the treatment they received at the show, where many assumed they were hired models. Jessie writes that she’s had to work to get out of the shadow of that booth ever since, which shows how using booth babes sets the wrong expectation for other
women at the show — however they dress. I’ve been citing Jessie et al. all week: it’s no crime to dress in an intentionally sexy fashion if that’s your choice and you’re part of the action. I would also point to the gymnasts and athletes at PolkAudio’s booth demonstrating sports earpieces on a trampoline. They had admirable physiques, but weren’t there for the ogling.]
As a man, at least at this point in our society’s development, I can never fully appreciate how women are continuously presented with images of perfection that they are covertly and overtly pressured to emulate. The models at Macworld | iWorld are just another component of that, presenting a contrast to the vendor’s professional staff and possibly driving away the women who attend the show. It’s distressing that we’ve gone backward in this respect from Macworld Expos of 5 or 10 years ago, when such models were few and far between. Perhaps that’s part of the price of attracting a younger and less-professional audience with iOS, but that doesn’t make the show floor any more welcoming.
Eh? Attractive young women in sexy outfits has, since the beginning of human culture, been a sure way to attract attention.
I think you are being prudish and over analyzing it.
Beating someone within inches of death has, since the beginning of human culture, been a sure way to convince people you were right.
Luckily we've come a long way since then. As such it bothers me, as it should bother you, that marketeers find it still completely normal, even desirable, to speak to our most primitive instincts. Like our brains didn't evolve and we don't have the capacity to see right through their BS as if it were a smudge on an otherwise pristine window. It's insulting.
And that's even beside the point that the idea it creates (hot chicks dig tek) is a complete lie. Other then with cars and motorbikes this just doesn't work.
Nothing turns off a hot chick as fast as droning about the latest update on your [insert gadget here]. Generalizing ofcourse but you know i'm right ;)
Okay, I get it. You are self-aware and sensitive, and there are people who applaud you for that.
There are others though, and judging by the continued success of sex in advertising, who are not nearly as evolved or sensitive as are you.
Thanks for playing.
Posting facile and provocative comments has, since the beginning of Internet culture, been a sure way to troll for attention.
Prudish is a variable term. What is prudish is some areas is welcomed in others. But the point is - why is it acceptable that women can be objectified and not men?
Not having been at Macworld | iWorld, I thought this was a whole todo about nothing. Then I saw that picture. That's... horrible. Just... horrible.
Is the show floor so crowded with vendors that they've got to do this sort of stupid thing? Or is this just a tradeshow tradition that's finally leaking into Macworld | iWorld?
I suspect new vendors don't quite get the audience, which is mostly consumer, mostly geeky, and largely mixed gender. Many vendors are used to working with dealers, like at CES, where they're mostly men and want to be sold. I'm sure in Vegas there are strip clubs and hookers involved, too.
Hmmm. Sounds like IDG should make it clear to vendors that this isn't like other trade shows.
It would be nice if IDG would take an explicit stand on this issue, too. They can do that in their vendor info packets without banning booth babes outright by telling vendors that show goers prefer knowledgeable staff to hired-for-a-day eyecandy.
IDG actually provides contact information for an agency in the exhibitor's brochure that rents talent, but this includes everything from people you train to do theater presentations of your product to eye candy.
Given this article about tech buying by women, the strategy might be particularly ill advised.
I was at Macworld|iWorld this year and can only give you my reaction as a 54 year old woman. I saw one vendor with women wearing shorts so short that their Gluteus Maxmi (or asses in the vernacular) were literally on display. Needless to say, I don't remember the name of the vendor, because I avoided their booth, as I did all other vendors using sex to sell their wares.
We worked very hard in the '70's and '80's to convince companies that we had brains as well as bodies and I feel frustrated that we seem to have made so little progress.
I talked to many other women who felt as I did. I don't put down women for taking the jobs, but I wonder if the vendors know how many sales the lose to those of us who just walk on by. I have a sister with bulimia, I will not support anyone who helps add to women's bad body images and low self esteem, no matter how good their product. And many of the women who agreed with me are purchasing agents for their companies or, like me, independent consutants.
The Booth Babe outfit tells me that the person wearing it doesn't know anything about the product, and the rest of the people staffing the booth probably don't either, and the people who are running the booth don't respect their customers, and (certainly for MacWorld, though less so for CES) don't know their audience or customer base.
People dressed in marketing suits may or may not know their products or users (hey, I've done booth duty too), but at least they're trying. For most trade shows I go to, the company's lead designer is a much more interesting attraction, or somebody who can talk new features or release schedules or at least if you're going for the cheap trick, hand out chocolate or coffee or blinky-light toys with your logo or something.
I have made this comment before in other locations, but I thought I would repeat most of it here. I think booth babes (male or female) are an atrocious idea, but not for the usual reasons. Many exhibitors mistakenly believe that they need to collect the most leads. This leads them to have booth babes attract lots of random people. When they return from the show they realize that the quality of the leads is horrible. It is nearly impossible to find the true quality leads and you likely turned away a number of qualified leads who felt the booth was too busy for them to stop in. The company would be much better off attracting fewer high quality leads that are easy to follow up on then hundreds or thousands of low quality leads that stopped by to see the babes and have no interest in the product.
I haven't seen this mentioned elsewhere, so I'll say it myself: it's not like the PR industry doesn't have its own fairly large share of attractive people in it who aren't particularly well-versed in the products they're selling. And arguably none of us would object to a company that puts its attractive techies on display at trade shows.
There was a story that discussed this at CES a few years back: booth babes bring in unqualified leads, but also make a booth look busy -- and that's what brings in the actual sales. This technique does work, and works more cheaply than many other trade show gimmicks.
My rule: if I talk to any professional rep of a company and they can't answer my questions, my opinion of the company is lowered. Doesn't matter if he's wearing business clothes or purple spandex.
And at the risk of saying something that might anger some people: I think it's past time when the presence of booth babes was something that caused all women in the industry to be denigrated. This was certainly true in the past. But these days, if the presence of a model makes you discount the professional contributions of the women around you, then you're simply an idiot -- and most likely will be treated accordingly by your male and female peers.
It's all about signaling. And there are many idiots in the world. Ourselves excluded.
I can't agree, Jeff - if it was offensive then, it's offensive now. Women still don't have an even playing field, and the fact that this is even *considered* useful shoves that in their faces.
I can't speak for women - but *I'm* offended by this kind of crass nonsense; it makes me avoid the whole company.
(If half of the models were men in tight swimshorts, then your "it's better these days" would be more convincing.)
I think booth-babes are still insulting on many levels.
Me, for one, like females in their normal feminine state (you know, with round stuff). Booth babes on average, to me, look too much like the 16y old boys they are hired too attract.
Then, consider the age difference between the average booth-babe and the average tech-consumer. Doesn't it immediately begs the question what exactly they are promoting? I can hardly look at some of those girls without immediately feeling like a dirty-old-man (and I'm only 42).
And then there's the inequality: where's the booth-boys? No eye-candy for the girls? I call that a missed opportunity...
And yes, I know, this is reductio ad absurdum to an extend. But that is only to show the flip side of moderate thinking.
Certainly we all need to just remember that regardless of what suit a person is wearing--be it purple spandex or grey tweed, the person is still a person. And yes, if a guy (I'm going with the gender stereotypes here, sorry) can't treat women with respect, he's got a problem. On the other hand, how about the vendors do the same for us? Attractive women are great. I will never object to meeting and socializing with one. However, that shouldn't be the only reason to hire them to represent your company. The women in my graduating PR class were, by and large, magazine-model stunning, but they graduated because they could do good PR work, and proved they could represent a company well before its publics. I might enjoy the company of both the scantily-clad and the business-suited, but I will buy from the ones who rep their products and services properly.
Most of the comments on the Cult of Mac site are truly disgusting.
Was glad to see that it wasn't just me that noticed this, the explosion of "booth babes". In fact to me it seems that it was a 100 percent increase from last year and was one of the first thing I noticed this year.
I don't know what or even if IDG should do something/anything about it but I am hoping that having one or many folks say "this was the first thing I noticed" will put at least a bug in their ear.
Speaking as a women at the show, and as one who has occasionally struggled to be taken seriously with all the testosterone being flung around (no offense to my many excellent male colleagues), just as Glenn struggled with low-level reflexes when encountering booth babes, so did I, but they were not the same.
On a low level, I felt that those companies were not interested in me reporting on their products in TidBITS, suggesting that a Take Control author look at one of their products, or in any way interacting with them on professional terms. I can intellectualize this low-level gut reaction away in many ways, and ignore it, but the fact is, at a low level, I felt unwelcome at those booths.
I don't think that Macworld Expo needs to make a rule about it, but I do think that those companies should rethink what they are doing. Certainly, a tech-savvy women with an hour's training can talk about a tech product pretty well, and those lovely ladies could have been more effective without everyone wondering whose dress was going to ride up to the navel first.
Well said Tonya.
The first place I noticed the "booth babe explosion" was the folks outside of a booth for a piece of software that is..well lets say it has a reputation, and not a very good one.
This article could have used more pictures! ;-)
You thought that was funny, didn't you?
Yes, I did. ;-)
You were the only one.
I don't recall seeing booth babes at SF shows. MacWorld Expo Tokyo used to have them, and yes, you do see a few more at CES and other shows.
I don't think anyone is so gene-damaged to think these women are available for sex. Being attractive in one way or another CAN sell more though - its about catching the eye. That attraction can take the form of pretty girls or it can take some other form.
At a MacWorld several years ago, a booth I arranged had the only big screen in the section, and it also happened to be populated by a few French women (who were not dressed in spandex) with pleasing faces and smiles, answering questions, etc. It also had me, asking customers about their projects. Once people began to talk about their projects...it was almost always a sale.
Tossing in booth babes is rather artless, but its a technique that works.
On the other hand, Ive seen booth occupants who do everything wrong, effectively wasting an expensive investment in being in the show.
"I don't think anyone is so gene-damaged to think these women are available for sex": That's always the subtext. You don't advertise women (or men) by using their sexual characteristics in order to have those attracted to that gender ignore them.
It's covert, not overt, but barely so. There's a dance of "we don't really mean this (but we do)" which is, of course, awkward for the models who treat this as a profession and who have to fend off advances. The advances are because the models are presented in a fashion designed to advertise them as sexually available.
There was another booth selling a sleep-related product whose booth staff (male and female) were wearing shirts that said something like "Ask if you can sleep with me" and underneath, in parentheses, "(C'mon, you really can.)"
I didn't ask to see if it made any of them uncomfortable, but I can easily imagine people who would be horribly embarrassed to wear such a shirt. And people who would just think it was funny. That seems like a finer line to walk than the skin-tight tube dresses with a booth number on the butt.
I've never cared for booth babes and I wouldn't mind a booth-babe free expo. However, I don't like this argument becoming a matter of self esteem, body image or any other ethical or moral subject. These ladies are just doing their job, let them be.
You pointed out that you weren't suggesting for the IDG World Expo show management to take action. I say, someone has to set the standards and follow the conventions of a given expo, to embrace and enforce them, to keep the quality and proper focus.
If it's not the IDG, then it has to be someone in charge that cares. Or maybe they just do not care. You have to ponder that possibility, as well.
"ever, I don't like this argument becoming a matter of self esteem, body image or any other ethical or moral subject. These ladies are just doing their job, let them be."
Uh, who's attacking the women working? Everybody has been quite pointed about NOT doing that.
That's a good point, but it is not about shaming them or the models. They are professionals, and do a good job at the task at which they work.
The point is the larger context of the show and society. There are other venues in which their work would be potentially appropriate (or at least just not as jarring).
Oh, I LOVE how you put that Glenn, "potentially appropriate".. don't mind if I steal that one ;)
The problem I have is that the use of "Booth Bunnies", is that it detracts from attractive serious booth personnel. We had a very attractive engineer supporting one of our trade shows and far too many male attendees just brushed her off as just more eye candy, when she really was the subject matter expert. Very unfortunate...
If you're a woman working in tech and working a booth, many men (and some women) assume you're less than competent--even if you're wearing a t-shirt and khakis, rather than a mini and a halter.
It's demeaning, frankly, no matter how I look at it. The women working booths are wearing uncomfortable clothing, work long hours, and put up with some incredibly boorish behavior from entitled customers. Many men are uncomfortable because of as well as for the women, and embarrassed by some of the less-than-couth behavors of many of their peers.
I don't think "booth babes" are a positive--and I avoid the booths and products associated with them.
Ms Spangdenberg's remarks here get right to the point and succinctly. Add to that Glenn's suggestion below that the use of skin and spandex micro skirts was a disappointment and it's all that need be said. There is far too much "ink" being lavished on the subject.
Despite Adam's mischaracterization of Glenn's article, there was not a "preponderance" of booth babes. Out of the nearly 300 booths, only a small handful employed sex to attract an audience. Time to move on.
As I have noted elsewhere, it wasn't the number of vendors choosing this tactic. Rather, that there were dozens of women hired for this purpose by several companies, and they roamed about. You didn't need to go to a booth to gawk.
I was not impressed by the plethora of pulchritude that has proliferated at the recent MacWorld/iWorld show. My automatic reaction to this is to prejudge the product being pushed as not good enough to stand on its own.
Good article Glen. If it didn't work, they wouldn't use them, so it must work at some level, even if the traffic is artificial and doesn't lead to business. Most we can do is not patronize them if we find it out of place or offensive, and perhaps write the companies letting them know how we feel.
Brilliant piece but rather too PC (if PC is not a prohibited abbreviation on a Mac fanzine). Personally, I have no issues with female flesh - exposed or ultra-constrained - on an exhibition floor. Because I'm grown up enough to know that it matters not one jot as far as my opinion of the product is concerned.
PC implies a knee-jerk response based on sensibility, rather than sense. I would argue that my deconstruction of the message has nothing to do with whether or not exposing flesh or using tight shirts is good or bad. Rather, the message that it sends in this context.
In other contexts, I would be perfectly happy to gaze appreciatively at handsomely presented people.
Speaking as a member of the press, I systematically avoided the babe-staff booths, which is surely the opposite of the result they were attempting to produce. But the reason I avoided the booths wasn't that I was offended by the notion of using attractive women to help sell gadgets—it was that I go to a trade show to learn about products, and I had no expectation that I could learn from the spokesmodels.
I like talking to designers, developers, support staff, and, you know, the people who actually make the stuff shown at the booths. I want to ask detailed technical and business questions, things that are totally outside the purview of any hired hand (babe or otherwise). Staffing a booth with babes is a signal to me that I won't get the kind of information I'm looking for, that the company cares only about selling stuff, not about promoting products based on their merits.
Ironically, I typically make an effort to look at every single booth and get at least a general idea of what they're selling, so if a vendor were babe-free, they'd have a vastly greater chance of attracting my attention.
You might have mentioned the models' closing message on the Saturday afternoon of the show. Walking past the MacKeeper booth, a fella could've easily have had one of the women press a condom into his hand and coo, "Stay safe online." It happened to me. I'm left with a logo-labeled souvenir of an encounter that surely must have intended a sexual message. Either that, or I need to get out a little more.
This is why I support groups like The D20girls Project, and the agency, Charisma+2, that strive to provide female product specialists for interactive media companies. (I just wish more companies would get on board.)
If you're offended by this type of thing, avoid the booth. Don't condemn something just because it doesn't appeal to you. As another commenter said, you're being far too PC about this. And everyone knows that PC is the last thing that we need more of. Don't be such a prude!
Offended isn't the correct word. Disappointed is. The use of women as sexual objects seems not to be beneficial to society as a whole, nor to companies promoting goods and services for sale.
You were also likely not at the show. The spandex/miniskirt/tinydress models were outside the show floor and roaming it, not confined in pens at each booth.
"As a man, at least at this point in our society’s development, I can never fully appreciate how women are continuously presented with images of perfection that they are covertly and overtly pressured to emulate."
It's not hard to figure out. It's sexism. And, it is wrong.
Another angle on booth babes is this one: http://jessiechar.tumblr.com/post/16838586904/lament-of-the-delicious-librarian
I have two responses to it:
First, the delicious librarians were much more decorous in their attire than most of the women Glenn is discussing here.
Second, Jessie rightfully makes the point that women can be be dressed in a way meant to attract attention and be still be super smart about their products.
To clarify the point I poorly made earlier: I think we've passed the point of Mad Men where women at a trade show are expected by the men to be eye candy. To me, the corollary to that is that you don't necessarily have to be a Neanderthal to hire eye candy and/or appreciate it.
I'm not trying to defend the practice, because it doesn't need defending: ASAE research shows that this works as a marketing tool. Empty booths don't get qualified traffic, so the Dumb Male traffic puts bodies in the booths and allows actual customers to stop in.
And *that* said -- it comes as news to me that Tonya is made uncomfortable by the practice, and speaking as a self-identified feminist, if this liberal egalitarian is in need of some education, I'm all for it.
I entered the IT world in 1980 and was appalled to hear about "demo dollies" at a staff meeting. I am equally appalled to hear of "booth babes in this century.
Some things never change.
Obviously there was little to show of interesting products, but much to see just the same; and our commentator was highly incensed at the view.
How unfortunate that the writer feels so much angst over viewing "leggy ladies" that he feels compelled to rail against these women show personnel and even mentions a "dress code" as a potential option for future MacWorld events.
Poor fellow, perhaps he would suffer less psychological duress living where women dress in burkhas that hide their bodies from head to toe.
There are many areas of the world where women are constrained from wearing the costuming the writer inveighs against, he should consider moving to one of these places on the planet.
Little of interest: It was a great show, better for newcomers and iOS users than Mac folks, but well received. I started out lukewarm, and it got better.
"Dress code": What I wrote was, in fact, "setting a dress code that enforces how tight a dress can be worn...would be pointless and provocative" or the exact opposite of what you believe I wrote.
"Poor fellow": My critique is of the context of the show and the paid presentation of these women as sexual objects for ogling, not of the manner of dress. There are plenty of places in which women dress in a manner to be seen in that fashion at their choice. I do like a visit to the beach on a warm day, for instance, or to sit at the park as runners go by.
The salient part of your observations is that MacWorld has apparently degenerated into a "show" as opposed to a Macintosh technology event.
Boat shows, home shows, car shows, and other "shows" use professional models to display their products. By Mr. Fleishman's report MacWorld is now in similar company.
The association of women models working a show as "sexual objects rife for 'ogling'" speaks more to the psychological projections of the viewer than it does the use of women paid to stand around a display. While it may be crass, there's nothing "immoral" of "prurient" about the practice beyond the imagination of the viewer.
Future MacWorld event displayers will need to understand that "leggy women" apparently make computer geeks uncomfortable and should adjust their selling machinations accordingly.
"The association of women models working a show as "sexual objects rife for 'ogling'" speaks more to the psychological projections of the viewer than it does the use of women paid to stand around a display. While it may be crass, there's nothing "immoral" of "prurient" about the practice beyond the imagination of the viewer."
Oh crap. By that logic, having naked women walk around would be no problem as the only thing sexual would be in the "imagination of the viewer."
If your statements were accurate, the women would be dressed in flannel (or be men) and be just as effective.
There are other ways. In the past at other shows I remember a cappella singers doing witty songs about the product, magicians, raffles, great demos that showcase the product, giveaways - all drawing people in. Those methods take more thought and creativity.
I don't know what the gender split is for Mac users, but as a female buyer and long time Mac user, I avoid companies that use overtly sexy ads to sell unless I absolutely have to have a product for my work. I am usually too busy to write a complaining note, but if more of us did, perhaps the companies might get that they lose customers. Attractive people are fine. Knowledgable, friendly people are really what I am looking for to explain how a product benefits me and my business.
I was with the Jessie Char post right up until she felt the need to invoke a swear word to make her point. For me, class doesn't need four-letter words to make the point.
Kudos to you for voicing the subject. However viewed by others, it needed discussion.