'Booth babe' controversy continues to have legs

The appearance of 'booth babes' at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month and the Detroit auto show this week has reignited the ongoing debate over the use of scantily clad women to promote products.

Body-painted models cause stir at CES

As shows like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas grow in popularity, so too does the debate over the use of models known as 'booth babes.' (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Along with all the buzz over the latest techno-gadgets at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a more human display created a bit of a stir this year as scantily clad models reignited the ongoing debate over the deployment of so-called booth babes.

The tech company Hyper employed semi-naked body-painted female models to help advertise its latest product, a move that set Twitter users ablaze and drew considerable criticism in other media forums as well.

In response to the exhibit, the social activist group Miss Representation created a new hashtag #notbuyingit, claiming the company was dehumanizing women for profit.

"The worst thing about the 'fembots' at #CES is that the industry — and CEA — still consider that crap acceptable at a professional event," tweeted Emily Price, a tech journalist for the magazine Mashable.

A California-based company with a big sales office in China, Hyper specializes in computer accessors and responded to the complaints on its company blog by noting that it is a company co-owned and co-managed by women, and that some of the photos of its booth at the CES have been taken out of context. 

Its exhibit, however, highlighted what's been a growing controversy at events like these — sexy and scantily clad female models hired by exhibitors to help bring attention to their products.

In recent years, the big North American automakers have toned down their use of female models at many of the big car shows.

But as big trade shows like the CES grow in size and popularity, so too is the debate over the use of such models.

"It's a conversation that comes up every six months or so," Travis Stanton, editor of Exhibitor magazine, told CBC News. "Some form of this discussion pops up on a LinkedIn forum or something."

Defenders of the practice say that the models at these shows are being unfairly targeted and that deploying sex as a sales hook is something found in all forms of advertising.

Cali Lewis, host of, was one of those who defended Hyper and the models.

"Every woman I talked to in that booth was intelligent and capable," she wrote. "Some had MBAs. Some are engineers. They could certainly answer any question about the products at hand."

The body-painted models at the HyperShop exhibit at this year's CES sparked a lot of controversy. (Courtesy of HyperShop Instagram)

But detractors not only see 'booth babes' as an archaic and sexist way of selling a product, they question whether it makes good business sense, as companies could be turning off the female demographic that they so eagerly want to attract.

'Gimmicky grab for attention'

"Sure, booth babes are a gimmicky grab for attention. But the gimmick only works if the audience is male. And the presence of such a gendered gimmick only serves to reinforce the idea that the tech world is largely by men and for men," wrote Kelly Bourdet, a writer for Vice, a New York magazine specializing in arts and culture.

"I’m not upset that women can look sexy or that women looking sexy can sell things. I’m upset because the prevalence of this phenomenon at CES isn't some antiquated tongue-in-cheek fun; it's partially a reflection of a system that discourages serious contribution from women. A device designed to attract men can also alienate women, and that's a problem."

Stanton said the use of such models at these types of shows has been going on for decades. He referred to a passage in the 1968 book Trade Shows and Exhibits that said: "Young ladies have, for many exhibitors, become the answer to handling literature requests, inquiries and telephones."

But he also observed that while sexy women may attract attention, they can also lead to male consumers becoming skeptical about the value of the product.

"They assume if an exhibiting company thinks they need to resort to scantily clad women to attract attention to their booth, then there's probably not much of a value proposition beyond that," Stanton said.

"I just don't think people are making big purchasing decisions based on what your booth staffers look like and what they're wearing."

Story 'overly sensationalized'

Karen Chupka, senior vice-president of the Consumer Electronics Association, said that all the media attention this year about these models has been "overly sensationalized."

"I can understand why people have different feelings about what's comfortable to them," Chupka said in an interview with the website Mashable, which reports on digital innovation. "I walked in and saw a man in a completely tight body suit and thought, 'Hmm that's a little interesting.' Women walk around in yoga pants. Why? Because they're comfortable."

Asked about places like China, where they have apparently outlawed the use of models at trade shows, Chupka said that's not CEA policy.

"Each company should get to choose how they want to present itself," she said. "Our show represents a wide variety of industry segments. For us to say you must fit within a role would be like saying you have to dress like a pilgrim."

However, the role of these models in some industries, like auto shows, seems to have evolved over the years. Eddie Alterman, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine, said no longer will you see women draped over a car to make the big sell.

While models are still a presence at European trade shows, Alterman said the use of such models actually went away for a while in North America.

It appears to have come back somewhat since the Italian automobile manufacture Fiat took over Chrysler. But "it's not overt and it's not over-sexed and it's not in your face," Alterman told CBC News. "It's classic, simple black dresses, beautiful women, high heels."

"They're product specialists, they know what they're talking about, they're well trained and a lot of them travel from show to show. It's actually a fairly respectable profession."