CES - Skunkjuice - 02Has it really only been a week since the Consumer Electronics Show started winding down? I took away a lot of thoughts from it, but there was one memory that really stands out.

There I was at the Skunk Juice booth, shooting Noah as he checked out the company’s unique magnetic earbud system (which can click together up to four earbuds in one line, at once). The product is a novel idea that actually delivers pretty decent audio for only $29. Too bad the item was overshadowed by the busty, false-eyelashed booth bunny holding the buds and donning a “Wanna hook up?” T-shirt.

I’ll give credit where it’s due: At least this one knew enough about the product to give a hands-on demonstration. Many of the work-for-hire models didn’t, acting as nothing but pretty props for gadgets they hardly understood. It was kind of crazy, shooting the demo — she kept holding the product directly above or near chest-level. All I can say is, I tried very hard to focus on the product, even as those darn eyelashes or breasts kept coming into frame, trying to hog the spotlight. (Check the byline or bio here — I’m a girl who was behind the camera. Had it been a guy, the distraction would’ve been unbearable.)

There has been a dust-up lately about the women on display at CES. Reported on by various sites, from big ones like ZDNet and BBC to smaller ones, it seems the work-for-hire models gracing many (many) of the booths this year got more attention than the technologies themselves. And apparently, it has left several female tech reporters kind of upset.

Who Run The World?

Chances are, if you were a woman in the tech-focused media covering CES last week, you were hyper-aware of the booth babes in the exhibit halls. Okay, let’s be real: If you had a pulse and you were in the Las Vegas Convention Center, you would’ve noticed. Kind of hard to miss the skimpy clothing, thick make-up and go-go boots or stilettos. But is that really enough to rattle the female reporting ranks, or was there something else?

Well, it seems that many of the female journos weren’t upset because there were attractive women at the show; it was because many were outfitted in showgirl costumes, hot pants or bath towels, doing little more than being a living mannequin — with little knowledge or understanding of their specific products or our industry in general. In other words, the most visible women at a predominantly male-attended show were nothing more than just eye candy. It’s only natural to look at that and wonder what that says about how the industry views women.

The question comes to a head in the wake of a BBC video focusing on the “booth babe” trend in the exhibit halls. As if to pour salt in the wound and further gender stereotypes even more, one of the babes commented about how women aren’t really interested in technology, certainly not as much as shopping, cooking and raising kids.

(Excuse me while my eyes roll up into my head. Oh, puhlease — can’t we rock some style, wield a chef’s knife AND know what a CPU is? And there are plenty of women, and men, who do some or all of that, and even manage to rear some little geeklets too, thank you very much.)

Is This “Booth Babe” Controversy Irrelevant?

When the BBC asked CEA President/CEO Gary Shapiro for a comment about the booth babe trend at his show, he willingly complied… by chiming in and immediately making things worse: “Sometimes it is a little old school, but it does work. People naturally want to go towards what they consider pretty. So your effort to try to get a story based on booth babes, which is decreasing rather rapidly in the industry, and say that it’s somehow sexism imbalancing, it’s cute but it’s frankly irrelevant in my view.”

But is it irrelevant? Not when you consider the male dominance of the technology sector. Just like many others (such as automotive, utilities, and sports-related areas, among others), it’s easy for things to devolve into a locker-room atmosphere. That might be sooo 50 years ago, but it still pops up today — and sets the stage for what the feminist contingent considers a crass display, like a page torn out of the Mad Men/PanAm female-objectification playbook of the mid-20th century.

Although I generally like modern technology fused with old-world influences, this is something else. As a woman in those surroundings, there were definitely times it was uncomfortable — particularly when these “reps” lavished attention to the guys on my right or left, but couldn’t quite seem to get around to me. Or other times, when I got trampled in the stampede to the leggy demo girls.

What’s striking about this is, even though these exhibitors were clearly catering to a male audience, they will turn to their ad reps throughout the rest of the year, wondering why they have trouble attracting female patronage (as some have done for years now).

Gender Roles, Yadda Yadda… What About The Tech? 

CES 2012 SignSo why did the booth babe situation seem so egregious here? You’ve got to wonder if, maybe, it’s because there wasn’t a whole lot of game-changing happening on the show floor. Nothing like putting a controversy against the bland canvass that was this year’s incredible lack of tech trailblazing, to really make it stand out.

No doubt, the increasingly noisy, crowded exhibit halls — the very same ones that are driving more and more companies to hold off-site press meetings — is what is compelling companies to use whatever means necessary to grab attention. But is this really the type of attention they want?

What might have been the most uncomfortable aspect of this, at least for me, was watching the male attendees at the show. Most were either reduced to salivating puppy dogs or rendered just as uncomfortable by this environment as the women in attendance. Sure, there were plenty of lascivious looks, but there were just as many puzzled ones too. They seemed to be asking, “Do you really think some sequins, make-up and tight clothes will make your product more appealing to me? Gimme a break.”

Not good. The women in this field deserve more respect than this. And for that matter, so do the men.

For more, you can check out the original BBC video report here.

We want to know what you think: Are “booth babes” a worthwhile strategy for technology exhibitors looking to stand out, or is it a sad, outdated convention tactic better left in the past?


CEA’s Gary Shapiro amended his remarks (via email to Gizmodo, full text below), basically stating that (1) he was tired when he made the initial statement, (2) he nor CEA is responsible for how exhibitors market their booths, and (3) he is an advocate for women in technology, noting evidence of his support.

If you get through his email, you’ll note Shapiro’s reference to an adult industry trade show that goes on at the same time as CES. According to ZDNet, Pink Visual’s Alison Vivas, CEO of the company that produces the show, has said: “There is no reason that adult entertainment can’t be a mainstream event and be represented professionally to adult consumers.” Well, there’s some food for thought. If the adult industry can handle their risqué events maturely, why can’t a consumer electronics show?

Here are Shapiro’s follow-up comments, in their entirety:

I want to take you up on your suggestion that I clarify my remarks from the BBC story. Perhaps you’re right that I was tired from three straight hours of media interviews when the BBC surprised me by asking if I thought “booth babes” were consumer electronics professionals. I was trying to focus on the great innovation at CES – our best show in history – and the BBC reporter frankly befuddled me with a story angle that was bizarre and ultimately irrelevant to what we try to accomplish at CES.

So, instead of conjecture about who I am and what I stand for, let’s look at the facts. I don’t decide the gender or manner of dress of people in CES exhibitor booths. More, I can’t speak for the marketing decisions of specific companies — if they choose to employ models in their TV commercials, promotional activities or trade show booths, that is their decision. Whether I think it is a good idea or not that companies use models in their booths is simply irrelevant – I don’t matter to their decision making process, and if some companies think it works, they are going to use models in their booths. As long as they don’t violate show rules, I can’t do anything about it. That’s the point I was trying to make, along with my observation that fewer companies use untrained models each year.

What I can speak for is CEA itself, the organization I run and that owns CES. The suggestion that somehow I don’t support women in the tech industry or at CES is demonstrably false. First, I led the internal battle to ensure our divorce from the adult video show. More, nearly all of our senior show team is female including our entire show operations department. On the opening eve of CES, I delivered the keynote remarks at the Women in CE Annual Awards event, where I noted, to applause, that not one woman in the room had advanced in our industry through any criteria other than competence.

The fact is our nation and industry suffer from too few women scientists, engineers, mathematicians and IT professionals. Being married to a surgeon, I have some understanding of the hurdles that women face in what some call a traditionally male profession. But I am also mindful that companies market as they choose and the market determines their success.

I am proud of my record of supporting women in the technology industry, through CEA and the International CES. I hope that a media “gotcha” piece doesn’t distract from our important efforts.

Gary Shapiro
President and CEO
Consumer Electronics Association