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NAIAS 2016: Detroit car show models are watching you right back

In the age of big data, crowdsourcing and instant feedback, attractive "product specialists" at car shows aren't just eye candy. They're also watching the public very closely for consumer clues.

Now called 'product specialists,' presenters are also trained to find out what consumers are thinking

A model stands at the Audi booth for the A3 e-tron at the North American International Automotive Show in Detroit. Auto manufacturers at the exhibition now employ a mix of models and product specialists to inform would-be consumers about the latest car specs. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

No, dude, she does not come with the car. Please don't even ask.

But she may have some queries of her own. And it won't necessarily just be friendly repartee.

Not when America's biggest automakers are paying roughly $5 million to maintain floorspace at the North American International Automotive Show in Detroit, one of the car industry's biggest showcases

In the age of big data, crowdsourcing and instant feedback, the time ticket buyers spend chatting up photogenic "product specialists" — once referred to as "booth babes" — is being turned into consumer analysis.

Mostly gone are the days of "spin and grin," when the ladies at auto shows stood on a turntable, hand on hip, beside a new concept car. Some of them recited scripts. Others merely waved and posed.

"You were basically a hood ornament," says Hedy Popson, president of Productions Plus, the agency employing the nearly 400 product specialists at this Detroit event.

"Now, most of the people you see at the auto show on public days are product specialists," she says. "They can give a presentation, answer questions about technology development and also look attractive."

Emphasis on market research

The new culture of market research requires active engagement, says Popson, herself a product specialist at auto shows for 17 years before she started her firm.

And while these product specialists may turn heads here at the Detroit show, they're also watching the consumer right back. What they learn can have an impact next season's models.

Jenny Bauer and Grace So, both product specialists with Toyota, are used to fielding many questions from interested consumers at auto shows. One they both hate hearing: "Do you come with the car?" (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"We're like flies on the wall," says Jenny Bauer, a six-year veteran with the Detroit auto show, working the floor at Toyota this year in a slinky black dress.

"Even if we hear something in passing, like, 'Oh man, I wish they wouldn't have changed blah-blah-blah in the Camry, I type that down in my notes," she said, tapping her iPad.

Indeed, those tablets are everywhere, too.

"It's a sourcebook," fellow Toyota rep Grace So says. She uses her iPad to send an e-brochure, or bring up dimensions for the wheel base, or the width of a car so a consumer knows it fits in the garage.

That feedback gets uploaded and disseminated to automakers' head offices.

Bauer and So are convinced their reports on everything from placement of cup holders to complaints about the lack of six-way adjustable seats in some cars have inspired spec rethinks.

A few years ago, the Toyota specialists recorded dozens of overheard comments by potential buyers about when the Prius would be redesigned. This year, the new version is being shown on the floor.

Questions not to ask

"We definitely contribute to the future development of vehicles," So says, adding that she often initiates conversations to find out about a person's lifestyle and car preferences.

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit is one of the big annual showcases for the world's car makers. (Carlos Osorio?Associated Press)

Of course, some questions are more welcome than others.

"I've definitely been asked, 'Do you come with the car?'" Bauer said. "I find that when people ask it, they actually think that they're being original."

Popson says the product specialists can make around $275 to as much as $1,000 a day for presenters.

Ken Paul, a product specialist with Nissan, now leads corporate training for Productions Plus's new hires during week-long getaways to sunny resort destinations.

Much has changed in the 19 years since he started in the biz.

"I was one of the guys that wasn't allowed to talk about cars at first," he says.

But now, "a good product specialist or one that wants to stay a product specialist will engage. It's an absolute requirement of the modern version of the job. It's sales," Paul says.

The auto-show circuit is seasonal work, and many product specialists moonlight as actors, models or musicians, or have side gigs with other exhibitions.

Breaking away from outlining specs for the new Chevrolet Trax, product specialist Brian Thomas says that he is writing a web series titled The Dangerous Charm. ("It's about a personal trainer with a sex addiction," he said.)

Brandon Layne stands beside Cadillac's new XT5 Crossover, to be released near the end of the second quarter of 2016 in the U.S. As a product specialist representing Cadillac at the Detroit auto show, Layne says it's important to project an image in line with the brand. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Though male product specialists are a rarer breed, casual objectification crosses gender lines.

Over at the Cadillac exhibit, Brandon Layne, in a sharp grey suit and browline glasses, allows he has also been cat-called.

"I definitely understand now how some women would feel," he says, noting it's important to maintain poise while representing the Cadillac brand.

The glasses, for example, are optional. "I don't need them, but if I have the glasses off, people look at me as unapproachable," he says. "And in this position, perception is everything."

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      About the Author

      Matt Kwong


      Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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