Let’s Talk Booth Babes at CES. Because…Booth Babes at CES.

CES Booth Babe | Mom101 Gumbinner

After my 2013 experience at the International CES, this year I knew what to expect. I was armed–at least with a camera–and ready. I was prepared for the bizarre world of trade show booth babes.

(And by the way, if you require more PC terms than “booth babes,” you may think of them as…I don’t know. Hostesses. Models. Stewardesses. You pick. I’m easy.) 

My Twitter and Facebook streams blew up with questions about them last week; and suddenly I felt myself the unwitting Booth Babe Overseer of CES, somehow responsible for documenting and snarking on the short skirts, the go-go dancers backlit to reveal everything under those short skirts, the mermaid costumes, the tranny stilettos, the  women dressed like dogs to promote dog cams.

Sexy dogs.

But something strange happened when I actually got to the show. I couldn’t stop asking myself, why? Not from a feminist (or really, humanist) perspective, but from a marketing perspective.

Why, in the presence of an increasing number of female tech publications female tech influencers, female tech entrepreneurs, female tech leaders, are men (presumably) at these companies still thinking that printing your URL on a model’s ass is somehow the smartest possible way to drive business? 

CES booth babe with URL on skirt | Mom101

“Hey Fred, here’s an idea! As long as all the fellas are looking there anyway…”

Now let me be clear that I don’t fault the booth babes; it’s a living. Also, a few of the women really knew their stuff. Shredded paper girl up top? She was smart, she stuck to the script, she didn’t start mumbling because having to talk to a woman threw her off. I’d hire her, although I’d probably give her something  more professional to wear than something stolen off a coffee shop bulletin board. Also, I’d feed her a sandwich.

Still, models like her were a minority. There were plenty of booth babes I encountered who were way more interested in their nail art than their clients. Let alone their clients’ potential clients. Others just got plain nervous when I approached the booth; without flirting or gratuitous cleavage-flashing in their arsenal of tools, I had the impression that it left some of them unprepared.

Two women, tasked with the super challenging job of explaining “cute USB drives” could barely get a coherent word out about the product. I think they may have even referred to them as UBS drives once.

Several others looked so miserable behind the booths by Thursday, I felt bad for them more than anything. No doubt it had something to do with three straight days teetering on platforms on the hard convention center floor.

CES Booth Babe in platforms | Mom101

Think she got the bandage from falling off her shoes?

I don’t think this is just because I’m a woman, but please, marketers, pleeeeease: give me a passionate, knowledgeable person to learn from any day. A product developer, a brand manager, an engineer, a seasoned PR rep.  Hell, one of my favorite experiences was chatting with the two Wayne’s World wannabes who were so high on whatever, that their pitch about their headphone company was the most adorable, passionate, authentic thing I saw all week. I just wanted to order 40 earbuds and hand them each some Quaaludes, then stroke their sweaty heads while they came down.

(It was also cute when they sized me up, switched off the electronica that had been blasting, and assured me, “it’s great for listening to…you know, Pink Floyd.” I’m grateful they didn’t also call me “ma’am.”)

So. If the babes/models/hostesses aren’t going to be as sharp or knowledgeable as anyone else in your booth, it brings me back to the question…why are they there? Are they making sales? Are they bringing actual customers or journalists into the booths who want more than pose for pictures with them and fantasize about them later that night? (Sorry. True.) Are they presenting the company in the best possible light? Are they really getting a small business press that might otherwise go ignored?

Or worse, do they convey that the brand has nothing else to offer but a little spandex-sheathed eye candy? Because that’s kind of what I was getting from those brands.

Let’s just say the astounding line to play with the new Parrot AR Drone Quadricopter had absolutely zilch to do with any exposed body parts whatsoever.

CES Booth babes in short shorts | Mom101

The hot new accessory in Vegas: ass cheeks. Damn, left mine at home.

I also wonder whether the tech companies even consider whether they’ll alienate potential customers with this tactic–and not just women, by the way. I saw plenty of men looking wildly uncomfortable when models approached them, or even annoyed that they weren’t talking to someone with more authority. Go figure; when you have 1.85 million square feet of exhibit space to get through, maybe you don’t want to waste some of your time talking with tongue-tied girls about “UBS drives.”

I’ve asked around and there are a lot of theories about why booth babes still exist: People who don’t know any better and assume that’s just what you do. People who hire a trade show company that insists, “ya gotta get a girl! It’s Vegas!” People who think it really is a reasonable way to draw attention to their booth. People who are stuck in the 1970’s. People who are unaware that the trade show floor isn’t just filled with horndog bachelors. People who think all press is good press.

In fact, last year there was a swarm of controversy over an accessories company that used fully naked women covered in body paint to draw attention to their booth–which of course they received in spades. It wasn’t the women that turned me off from the company, though; it was the way the company responded to criticism on their Facebook page, attacking anyone who criticized their stunt (mostly women), deleting all dissenting comments no matter how thoughtful, and refusing to take any responsibility for the fact that, inadvertent or not, they alienated a whole lot of people. Still, they stuck to their guns, they insisted they were in the right, they repeated the “screw ’em if they can’t take a joke or a bunch of naked women” mantra in as many forums as they could, until the tech press lost interest.

Then again, despite their protests, I’d say deep down the company knew they hadn’t made the best choice. Because this year, instead of topping last year’s stunt with something more outrageous, their 2014 CES booth was decidedly low-key, with  products more central to the display than any women.

Sure, there were still models there. Only this time, they were all wearing actual clothing.


(Edited to add: Thanks to Karen Walrond who shared this Tech Crunch article with me: Booth Babes Don’t Convert. So there’s that too.)  


34 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Booth Babes at CES. Because…Booth Babes at CES.”

  1. I am a huge fan of yours, and always appreciate your perspective on, well, pretty much everything! Still, I almost stopped reading the rest of this post when I got to this line: “Also, I’d feed her a sandwich.” That seemed needlessly bitchy and like it was coming from a place of jealousy rather than genuine concern over her potential lack of nutrition. Sorry.

    1. Fair enough Karen. She was uncomfortably thin. I’m a mom, I see that stuff.

      I appreciate your perspective too–but it was more the ass cheeks I was jealous about.

      1. I didn’t mean to imply that you were actually jealous. I’m saying that I don’t think body snarking thin women — however uncomfortably thin they seem to you — by commenting on what one would feed them is not kind. You wouldn’t make a comment about an obese women needing to lay off the sandwiches. For me, it’s also about the culture of commenting on women’s bodies in general. Something I’m sure you and I are both very aware of as mothers of daughters. Mostly, the line just seemed out of place to me in what was otherwise an informative and intelligent argument about booth babes.

    2. Seconded. There’s nothing better than someone talking about how bad it is that we perhaps use bodies inappropriately in marketing to turn around and make disparaging comments about those same bodies. Progress.

  2. Thanks for this, Liz. You didn’t disappoint. Thanks also to Karen for the link to the Techcrunch piece.

    For a while I thought, “There must be a reason beyond, you know, THAT, for employing ‘booth babes.’ There must be some evidence that they work – marketing dollars are so closely scrutinized you can’t throw them away.”

    Then I came to my senses.

    A thought in the form of a question – how many publicly traded companies do you think do that? I’d like to think there’s more scrutiny when you have to be held accountable to shareholders for your decisions, or that you become more responsible and decent when you reach a certain level of success.

    My DNA is PR/issues management and I can understand the utility of “changing the subject” when you don’t want to discuss a certain thing. But as you said, I thought the purpose of these events was to showcase new products. Can you think of a fundamental marketing/branding reason to distract from the product? Is there some underlying brand message you’re trying to enforce?

    Or is it really just this pathetic subculture of wank?

    1. Those are great questions David. I think the big companies used to do it even 2 years ago, but are pulling way way back.

      Look at this BBC video from 2012 when even some of the big brands were using booth babes: http://www.verbicidemagazine.com/2012/01/17/booth-babes-cause-controversy-at-ces-2012/
      The most fascinating part are the models in minis and tanks talking about how they’re still very approachable to women; and another saying how there’s really no women in tech anyway because all the women she knows would rather be shopping or cooking or raising kids.

      More importantly though, you need to start a Tumblr called Pathetic Subculture of Wank.

  3. I don’t like it either, and my first thought with a job like that is, “Would I want this for my daughter?” and if the answer is no, why would I want it for anyone’s daughter?

    But the truth is beauty sells. Study after study after study shows people are more likely to spend extra time and with an attractive person, and if that buys a few more seconds at your booth it may be worth it. The same way I can’t imagine anyone responding to certain kinds of spam I get, but someone must or it wouldn’t keep happening.

    1. I agree with that research; it’s been proven over and over. But there are attractive (male and female) PR people, attractive brand managers, even attractive models you can hire and not put them in stripper outfits. (Or dog outfits.) I guess that’s the issue for me–being sexy and sexual is different than being attractive.

      Hey, the product manager at the Belkin booth was cute! I get it! But he was engaged and smart and dedicated and it made me love the products even more.

  4. I am a former advertising executive. Fortunately, I never worked for or with a company that hired booth babes. If the product is good, no, not good, excellent, using sex to sell is totally unnecessary. I remember going to a Housewares Show in Chicago in the early seventies. There, in the basement, was this heavyset but charming man, Carl Sontheimer, demonstrating his newly created machine. It was something fascinating called a Cuisinart. People were actually pushing and shoving to get close to him to watch him cut and chop and shred and mix. That fall Cuisinart was introduced and became an immediate success. The next year when Cuisinart had moved up from the basement of McCormick Place onto the first or second floor, Sontheimer was smart enough to have professional and well known chefs doing demos. He never had to resort to women in too short skirts. The product sold itself. Bottom line: a good product doesn’t need borrowed interest.

  5. I always look forward to your Booth Babe wrap up, Liz.

    My husband is in IT, and he occasionally goes to tech trade shows. Since he’s not in consumer electronics specifically, the trade shows he attends are über-geeky. (Think: primarily dudes working in the basement of a building surrounded by racks of network servers, etc.)

    We were talking about the whole “booth babe” thing once, and I asked him what that was all about. I mean, why would you want the equivalent of a Hooters waitress talking to you about the latest corporate network security equipment? This is what he said:

    “I think it started when tech was not really appealing to the average consumer. You have these super geeky dudes roaming around a trade show floor, and they’re away from home, or their mom’s basement or whatever, and somebody somewhere had the idea that if they hired a Hooters waitress to stand around in the booth being flirty, more geeky dudes would come to their booth. It must have worked.”

    The time is now for a change. Technology is no longer a Dungeons and Dragons subculture. So having a barely-dressed young woman standing around your booth who knows nothing about what she’s representing isn’t – and shouldn’t – be selling or bringing in the people like it used to. I’m with you – if you know what you’re talking about, wear whatever you want. JUST KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.

    1. Your husband is right–but I think it goes further back, to like those car shows of the 50’s when they used models (wearing clothes) because that was pretty much the role of women back then. So much has changed since then I find it fascinating that this one thing hasn’t.

      Also, D+D reference. Ha.

  6. I am trying to picture myself at a conference where the booth babes are all shirtless ripped guys in G-strings or shredded paper shorts.

    Then I am picturing myself stopping to ask them questions about a video gaming system for my kids or about “cute UBS devices.”

    Then I imagine myself having my photo taken with these hunks and immediately Facebooking and Instagramming them for God and my two teenage boys and their friends to see.

    How embarrassing for everyone involved. Especially the guy in the shredded paper shorts.

    1. That’s such a good point Jen. I once took a pic in a booth with two hunky guys and felt so stupid the whole time. But I think there’s a difference…if you look at that BBC video I linked, you can see the men hitting on the women, asking them to come back to their rooms later that night and so on. The women have to sit there and smile while doing their jobs. There’s a power difference that I think makes it more uncomfortable. I’ve been with commercial directors who were all over the models in the same way, and I’ve never seen the equivalent from a woman in power letching on guys (though I’m sure it happens sometimes).

      1. I think you’re right about the difference between male and female booth models. Being a male model who’ve taken part as a “booth hunk” on several book conventions I’ve seen this difference myself, on the conventions that had models of both genders. Male models seemed more “active” while the female ones were more “passive”. To really explore why is an elaborate process analyzing gender roles and differences, but my take on this is people falling prey to old fashioned gender roles. While both male and female models do their best to promote their product and given the presumption that there’s no difference in the ability to promote and sell, I think many people more easily treat women as pure sex objects, and this may not even be conscious but a result of the internalization of the male gaze that’s been so prevalent during recent history. As a result it may be harder for a female model to step out of her “babe role” and it may be harder for the audience to see her as a “whole” person.

        Still I don’t think most people _intend_ to carry out this type of behavior but rather that it’s hard to get rid of a gaze that’s so cemented into both history and modern culture and that’s it’s going to take quite some more time to change it.

        As for male booth models – which must be said to be a relatively new thing – things doesn’t seem so one dimensional. Sure, women may compliment your physique/looks but I think they are better at treating the model as a “whole” person. I’ve had many shirtless sales meetings or been liasoning with editors, writers or customers without them being awkward about it.

        Another difference is the way male versus models are expected to look. Sure, I admit that expectations for me as a model may be high for many conventions and that women often expect to see extremely fit models. Still, I can’t help to think that a fit and powerful standard of male beauty is much better than the traditional unhealthy female beauty ideal that’s often shared among models; being as thin as possible with different types of implants.

        1. Thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate your insider perspective.

          Also for your distinction between the expectations of male and female beauty. My (controversial) comment about the weight of female models was very much a reference to this expectation. I want to take these young girls in my arms, cradle them, and assure them that they are gorgeous and employable even at a shocking size 2. I wish that fitness factored into our expectation of female beauty. But that’s another post, isn’t it.

  7. The whole booth babe concept is bad for women AND for men. To continue to believe that dudes will be swayed to purchase a product because the person [barely] selling it to them is dressed up as a sexy dog is just as 1950 as the overall concept.

    And let’s be honest? I’d pick a smart, hot woman in a pencil skirt and blouse over one in a furry animal any day.

    1. That’s a really good point about it being bad for men too. I’ve seen men interviewed about it who have said the same.

      Meanwhile I was at that booth talking about the dog cam, and I swear when the dog models came over I lost my train of thought and just kind of stammered and left. It was so bizarre.

  8. Booth babes aren’t just at auto shows or tech conferences. When I was a brand-new health care trade magazine reporter in the 80s going to hospital supply conventions, there were booth babes galore modeling next to the latest hospital beds, wheelchairs and oxygen tanks.

  9. OK, so I’m going to be the one voice of dissent. But first, a disclaimer: I hate Booth Babes, I despise the idea that a hot pants-ed woman has anything whatsoever to do with selling “UBS” drives, or anything other than, well, hot pants.
    That being said, while I’d like to believe that the tech community has evolved past the 1970’s, sexism-wise, I don’t believe it. Neither does the LA Times, btw http://articles.latimes.com/2013/oct/24/business/la-fi-tech-sexism-20131024) or the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joan-williams/silicon-valley-sexism_b_1569784.html.
    Sexism is RAMPANT in Silicon Valley, and I’d wager a guess that it’s even worse in tech retail, where the vast majority of buyers are men. (in my experience, anyway). These guys aren’t hipster techies, they’re retail buyers from Peoria, and Kansas City, and towns you never even heard of. They’re the guys the booth babes are meant to attract, and sadly, they probably do.
    I’d prefer if they didn’t. I’d prefer it if Booth Babes weren’t on the floor of trade shows at all, but until the mainstream (i.e. buyers, sales guys, store owners) don’t want Booth Babes, too….we’re gonna see a whole lot more shredded paper ensembles.

    1. Thanks Nancy!This echoes a lot of what Karen said below.

      It’s funny though, I felt less blatant sexism towards me this year. (Read my post about last year–the “don’t throw your phone on a pointed rock” story made me laugh all week as I retold it to a few people.) Maybe it’s a factor of spending more time in the press shows than on the LVCC floor (my people!) but I actually talked to tons of great brands, small businesses, entrepreneurs and PR reps who were respectful, engaged and informed.

      I guess my thinking is that the brands shouldn’t be waiting for there to be some 50/50 split of male to female buyers to step into the 21st century. If you are alienating even 10% of buyers or press (the editor in chief of CNET is a woman, hello…) then maybe you need to reconsider your strategies. From comments here and on Facebook, it seems that even men are increasingly uncomfortable with having to walk a gauntlet of strippers-by-night to get some product info.

      Either way, it’s good we’re all talking about it. That’s where change begins.

  10. Medical meetings. They don’t have booth babes. In fact, the fast majority of medical meetings don’t have corporate sponsors anymore; the ones that do have a trade-show component have booths with actually-knowledgeable people trying to sell you (or get you to sign up for) actually-interesting products and courses and such. Guess what – they are still fun! There are still photo booths and free demo 4-d ultrasounds if you happen to be pregnant and want a free (and very public) picture of your gestating baby, there are treats and little giveaways (like cute USB drives) and food stations. There is still networking and chatting and relaxing. I am so happy that my profession considers it too tacky to include inapropriately dressed women as part of the mix. I mean, really. Is it not uncomfortable for anyone in business attire to chit-chat with someone dressed for clubbing under the glare of flourescents surrounded by a few thousand other people? So weird….

  11. I don’t have a whole lot to add to this, in part because there is just SO MUCH to say about this and, well, I’m not sure I should leave a novel on your comments section! But I did want to say that that top picture? I’m not sure if it’s my hormones talking or what, but I feel so terribly sad for the woman in that shot. NOT because of your reaction to her, or the picture necessarily. But the look on her face, her forced smile, even her eye makeup, well, it just makes me feel like giving her a hug. And it makes me feel sad.

    A picture says a thousand words indeed and this shot just makes me feel so sad for this sweet, young girl. And I am not sure why that is…

  12. Thanks for posting this thoughtful piece that is so full of brilliance. I agree that talking about these issues more and more will help. Thanks for all you do!

    1. Thanks Buzz! This is the link at the bottom of my post. I did in fact see a few of those scared guys–though in fairness, I saw a few letchy guys with them too. Not sure if the latter group was there to buy or uh, browse.

  13. Confession: I used to be a booth babe. The “Smart” Booth Babe, meaning the one who was deemed sufficiently intelligent to work a computer and record the potential client’s data. And I was only in it for the money. Booth babes work long hours, sometimes during a weekend or evening, it ain’t no picknick being a booth babe. Thankfully I was spared the odd costumes or scimpy skirts, a simply two piece, classic suit was all that was required, along with a basic knowledge of the product. But just like you I always wondered ‘Why?’, when I was hired.

    Why did companies hire us (me and other more model-ish girls) to sell their product.
    Why did the models get floor – duty and the only brown haired girl (me) computer duty. I once asked a client and his response: ‘everybody does it and well, if we are going to do it, the girls might just as well be pretty’.

    1. Thanks for that perspective Tinne. My understanding is that there are tiered levels of the job–women like you who are hired as sales consultants with training to sell or acquire customers; then women with a bare minimum of training, and then the models in skimpy clothes who really are just there to smile and look sexy and flirt, and just draw attention to the booth (like the woman in the dog outfit above). I think that last group is the Booth Babe, in my mind.

      Also I am fascinated by the idea that brunettes give the impression of being more intelligent. Old stereotypes die hard.

  14. Great post. And, FYI, the “booth babes” are usually called “promotional models” or #brand ambassadors”

  15. ” I wish that fitness factored into our expectation of female beauty. “– that’s it, you said it! Best back up to that line about the sandwich. I’d say you fully redeemed yourself. I took it poorly at first., too.

  16. This so much!

    I exhibit at an international trade fair every year in the field of micro-electronics. It’s pretty technical, unsexy stuff. And yet the other stands often employ booth babes. For the most part they are not as uncovered as your examples (although one year there were two models wearing nothing but a thong and a lot of body paint!) but they are clearly there only to make tea and coffee and smile sweetly.

    From my point of view as a woman in her 20s, fellow exhibitors and visitors assume that’s all I do too! Never mind that I’m the only person at my booth all week (we’re a small company) and that I’m in a suit and that if you took the time to talk to me for 30 seconds you’d realise I know my stuff. When I get asked, ‘Can I speak to someone technical?’ I try not to take it personally, and remember that people are acting based on the environment and might not actually be completely sexist themselves. But it grates. And after the naked model incident it was downright uncomfortable how the bar of behaviour towards women suddenly dropped and I found more and more men speaking to my chest rather than my face.

    I just don’t understand why they employ them. The vast majority of visitors are there to find about technical innovations and get new contracts into place. If they wanted eye candy, they’d go to a bar. My customers would all rather speak with people who know their stuff. It does a disservice to the customer, to the exhibitors and especially to women in general.

Comments are closed.