The Consumer Electronics Associations, which puts on the annual International Consumer Electronics Show, says it has a problem with “booth babes.”
Not the actual booth babes, the attractive women hired to staff exhibitors’ booths and required to dress, for the most part, in scanty and/or provocative attire — including but not limited to short shorts, skimpy tank tops and skin-tight body suits. Or, in one notable case at the 2013 gathering, a thong, pasties and body paint.
No, the CEA’s problem is with the use of the term “booth babes.”
“I am offended by anyone calling anyone a ‘babe’ under any circumstances,” says Karen Chupka, senior vice president of International CES & corporate business strategy for the CEA.
“We’re in the year 2013 and it’s rude,” Chupka says after I called to ask about the booth babe situation at the January 2013 show in Las Vegas, which drew more than 150,000 attendees and more than 3,000 exhibitors from around the world. “I just don’t assume that we should call any woman who is working a booth at the show a ‘babe.’ The word babe offends me and I’m offended by anyone who uses it.”
I admit I paused after hearing that. Shouldn’t CEA’s outrage be directed, in 2013, at paying women to dress in pasties and other “provocative attire” at what is billed as “the world’s most important technology event?”
For better or worse, “booth babes” is an industry term to describe women paid, as former Eurogamer.net writer Rab Florence noted, “to stand for hours in painful high heels and skimpy clothes by a corporate body operating under the dated notion that tech products can't be sold without appealing to the worst elements of a perceived demographic." Eurogamer Expo banned booth babes in October 2012 and says it won’t allow them at the 2013 show.
“We reserve the right for marketers to market themselves,” Chupka says. “We have a basic decency policy. People should be covered. But we’re not going to get into a situation where we’re going to measure how much covering they have, how long their skirt is.”
As for the painted women in pasties and thongs, they didn’t violate the basic decency policy, says Chupka because it’s “art.” She adds they weren’t technically “naked,” as some reporters, seeking to sensationalize this year’s booth babes, noted in their stories.
Let me just say I’m not opposed at all to exhibitors’ hiring attractive models to pitch their products and help their company stand out from the other hawkers. Travel costs for booth staff makes it necessary for some companies to hire local staff. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem is with what they’re wearing -- and what they represent. As I and many others have noted, a women in a skimpy outfit – or possibly a male model in a Speedo (though I didn’t see any) – doesn’t help create the “welcoming, comfortable and productive” environment CES says it strives for. I can go into a lot of detail about why booth babes are bad, but I think two other writers have already done so eloquently.
“What does the concept of the Booth Babe say about women? It says that women's place at any tech-related event can only be as an attractive decoration to sweeten the event for the men,” former Eurogamer.net writer Florence noted. “It says that women aren't truly welcome in that world, because the moment you objectify something it isn't part of anything. It's just there. It's just something else to be consumed. Fundamentally, it depicts a woman as a product.
"What does the concept of the Booth Babe say about men? It says that we objectify women to such an extent that we will think nothing of attractive women just "being there" while we watch. It says that we are exactly what a corporate entity believes us to be. It makes us a predictable, easily defined and easily manipulated stick-man on a company whiteboard. It cheapens us. It cheapens all of us. It cheapens the event, and everyone at it, male or female."
And consider this from former Gizmodo reporter Mat Honan, who chastised CEA President Gary Shapiro in Jan. 2012 for dismissing the booth babe issue as “irrelevant.”
“There are two issues at play here,” Honan wrote. “First, there's the gender issue. Women are under-represented in the tech sector. And while there are a thousand theories why that is, the one thing that is clear is that they aren't underrepresented in society, and by extension, the marketplace. The argument that says CES should be geared towards men because men buy the most electronics ignores that women like gadgets too. If the industry keeps ignoring women in order to market towards men, it's going to lose sales. If you can create a gadget that women like just as much as men (hello, iPhone) you have a hit on your hands.”
"So why would you want to do anything that might discourage women from showing up? (And it's abundantly clear that some women certainly are off-put by booth babes.) Why wouldn't you want to know what a key demographic thinks of your product before it goes on sale?”
Why indeed. For the record, I asked Chupka what percentage of CES attendees are men versus women. She tells me it’s not a statistic they gather, opting instead to focus on the job titles/roles of showgoers. Again, her line is that most attendees are business professionals.
If that’s true, then why can’t CEA adopt a dress code policy for all exhibitor personnel, hired models or not? Let’s call it ‘business casual.’ Too vague? How about a dress code that echoes what the exhibitors expect their employees to wear every day to work back at company headquarters?
Pretty people in everyday clothes are still pretty, after all.
Chupka says that CEA is adding new language to its exhibitor guidelines for the 2014 show that it meant to include in the 2013 rules but that was somehow “overlooked.”
Here's what exhibitors will be told:
"The International CES’ diverse attendee base should be taken into consideration when choosing your booth talent, to ensure that your presenters are as knowledgeable about your products as possible. We recommend that you also consider how your chosen presenters will most positively reflect your brand to the diverse group of CES attendees. Recent news article show that “booth babes” can reflect poorly on your exhibit, so we ask that you give this thoughtful consideration, to avoid alienating or offending various audience segments."
I consider that a cop out. If at least six teams in the NFL can ban cheerleaders as “props that reinforce objectified sex roles” — and if Europe’s largest gaming conference can ban booth babes because they’re just “not okay” — why can’t the CEA take a decisive stance on this?
Chupka says that despite the numerous news stories calling the show organizers ignorant, outdated or worse for its lack of thoughtfulness on the booth babe issue, the CEA hasn’t received “a single formal complaint.” News stories, written by journalists and bloggers attending the show, don’t count as formal complaints.
Time to change that. I’ve started this petition asking that the CEA adopt a business dress code policy for CES exhibitors with the aim of banning the use of booth babes at the show. Again, I’m not against spokesmodels. Hire all the pretty people you want. Just dress them as though they actually work at your company.
After hearing from some of you, I asked Chupka to tell me how you can send a formal complaint directly to the CEA. You can email her directly at email@example.com.
If you agree, sign on and/or email Chupka. At the very least, we can give the CEA the formal complaints it needs to rethink its stance on booth babes – and to alert them to what’s truly offensive about the whole issue. -- Connie Guglielmo, Technology Reporter, Forbes