The Business Case Against Booth Babes

How using women as entertainment at professional events hurts brands' efforts to speak to what is arguably their most important demographic.

Earlier this month, invite-only professional marketing network PTTOW hired performers from Las Vegas nightclub The Act to perform at its annual youth media summit in California.

The engaging show fit in with the edgy tone of the conference, which focuses on marketing to young adults. It starred a woman wearing a dress that only covered half of her chest, who at one point pulled herself into a giant balloon—but the act was arguably more "carnival than strip tease." It sparked a discussion at the event, but there was no general sense that it was inappropriate. Meanwhile, throughout the conference, of which The Act was a small part, male and female "Ambassadors" in sponsored Lacoste uniforms directed attendees to their events and answered their questions.

That’s according to Larry Lieberman, the CMO of video chat and instant messaging service Oovoo. A woman who attended the same conference, but asked not to be named, described the performance a little differently:

An Instagram photo of The Act at #PTTOW
A promotional video for The Act

The show, according to this attendee, featured a topless woman who pulled herself into a giant bubble, accompanied by a man who referred to female performers as "bitches." One group, comprised mostly of men, was gathered near the stage and took photos. Another group of men and women hung toward the back of the room, and some felt the performance was inappropriate. Meanwhile, throughout the conference, female "hostesses" dressed in short black Lacoste dresses smiled and laughed at jokes, without adding much to the conversation.

Which account is accurate?

Both, says a third source.

It’s this difference in perception of the same events that is, in part, the problem.

Women as objects of entertainment—booth babes, scantily clad waitresses passing out tequila shots, nearly naked fembots, avid gamers "who happen to be models" dancing at conference parties—is a concept designed to appeal to the men who control so many creative departments at ad agencies (97%), executive business positions (about 86%), and top jobs at tech companies (most). But the booth babe approach overlooks the essential connections brands need to make with their customers—for many brands, a group that is mostly and increasingly women—and the subsequent need to develop a culture that includes women as part of the conversation.

Why Brands Need Women

Women control around 80% of U.S. household spending, and their influence in purchasing decisions is growing. So it's no surprise that even the NFL, the most stereotypical of stereotypical male-centric organizations, has increased its efforts to target women.

"Women are, we call it the mega-niche," says Sandy Sabean, the chief creative officer at advertising firm Womenkind, which specializes in marketing to women. "They are the most important buyer...Not just female products. Everything. They are the most important consumer."

Consumer technology, the sector that perhaps best supports the burgeoning booth babe industry, is no exception when it comes to the impact of female consumers on sales success. A recent survey of 2,000 consumers by Parks Associates found that women’s interest in purchasing tablets, laptops, and smartphones exceeded that of their male counterparts. Sabrina Crow, SVP & Managing Director for Media Client Services at Nielsen, noted 2011 data that showed, when it comes to a great many tech gadgets, women were just as likely to update their electronic products as men.

Women at CES Event | Image via Mashable

Gender is not necessarily the best way to compare consumers. But the comparison serves to make the same point that Nielsen did in its summary of Crow’s talk: "Technology companies who may have primarily focused on reaching men are missing the fact that niche female groups are just as valuable to marketers."

How To Not Reach Women

Creative ad departments are predominantly run by men. Which may be why, when the Greenfield Online for Arnold's women's insight team surveyed 1,000 men and women for a 2002 study, 91% of the women said they didn’t feel advertisers understood them.

"We did a lot of research when we started Womankind about how women feel about advertising," Sabean says, "and they’ve become sort of immune to it, they’re indifferent...it’s not that women are up in arms, it’s that they’re indifferent."

Brands know women are important to their success. So how do they reach them? Most advice on the topic boils down to this: Communicate with women as participants—don’t stereotype or sell to them.

Showcasing women as objects of entertainment rather than as participants at professional events might not be the best way to develop this mindset among the people who want to engage women as consumers.

PTTOW founder Roman Tsunder says the nightlife show at his conference was intended to portray a pocket of youth culture, as was an a capella group's performance at the event. "Our job is to give a window for our members who are shaping our culture into how young people are living and experiencing their lives," he told Fast Company. "It would be unjust of us to judge how their audience is living their lives."

But reflect a culture of women (or men) as sexualized objects in your product or messaging, even with good intentions, and you'll likely lose the attention of female consumers, says Sabean. In this light, conveying to a room full of marketing executives that sexy contortionist "bitches" are what young people are into these days may be a hindrance, not a help, in their efforts to reach customers.

Even in the room, it likely hurt participation, as both male and female attendees of the show told Fast Company they were less at ease being with their opposite-gender colleagues. "I think it's uncomfortable to view that content in a business environment with people who you don't necessarily know that well," said one male attendee.

Synchronized swimmers and The Act at PTTOW | Image via The Hundreds

As one frequent conference attendee put it: "The conference that figures out how to get more men talking to women and women talking to men, in an environment and atmosphere of creativity and openness, is going to be the conference that will attract the most interesting people. The brands that spend the most time in these environments are also going to be the ones that win."

The Act at PTTOW was put on with good intentions at an event that all agree was generally well done. Whether or not it was a tasteful display of youth culture is debatable. Maybe it was even art. But it probably wasn’t good for business.

[Business Man and Woman: Ostill via Shutterstock]

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24 Comments

  • DwDunphy

    What is the most over-used advice of the late 20th/early 21st Century? Think out of the box? Okay. When I'm at a trade show and the exhibitor has thought so little of potential clients that they stroll out the same sexist eye candy attitudes, all I can think is that this is not a company with the future in mind. Just a bunch of hyperventilating teens dumpster-diving behind the 7-11, looking for the discarded Playboys.

  • Tieira

    How many booth babes are on the floor...compared to Lead Gatherers, Product Specialist' etc etc that are women? The models painted above are simply human displays/advertisements in a creative art form. Booth babes get too much attention from people like the Writer of this article and not enough attention goes to the people actually there working and providing knowledge about products! Learn it, Live it, I DO IT! We are Entertainers...the stripper you posted about is not a booth babe!

    http://tieiraryder.com/2013/02...

  • Angela Tanudjaja

    I think its' perfectly fine that we're living in a man-centric world. Because for those who are now aware, we can start targeting our products to more females and cater to their needs. It's the blue ocean baby. 

    @angelatanudjaja

  • Stuart Bruce

    It's not just a case of if this will directly hurt or help your business. It is also a simple case of right and wrong. It is unethical to behave like that today. Most men I know in senior positions would also be unimpressed, not just because they were with female colleagues, but because they know it is wrong.

    However, the disturbing thing for me is that I've noticed blatant sexism of this kind is actually more accepted by younger people I've worked with. Why, I'm not sure, but it could be to do with that things are better today and they've never had to experience the extremes of sexism and discrimination. As a result they often misinterpret things like this and don't realise it is a slippery path back down to the dark old days.

  • padresj

    I wonder how much of the difference in opinion can be attributed to the novelty of the conference environment.

    I cover tech events (CES, Interop, NAB, GoogleIO, VMWorld, etc.) and went I first started in the 90's the "booth babe" was a shock, but one that generally attracted attention towards a possible conversation with a booth representative. Perhaps it was because most of these shows took place in Vegas, but the "booth babe" fit in with the "3 days of craziness" that is most shows.

    Just a few years later, booth babes were no longer a shock and no longer effective in drawing my attention. In fact, I found myself distancing myself from vendors utilizing booth babes in the most ridiculous outfits and poses. Nowadays I understand that vendors will want to work an attractive woman into a presentation with a mostly male crowd, but if that woman doesn't add something to the SUBSTANCE of the presentation (i.e. she actually knows something about the product) I'm embarrassed for the vendor.

    That image from CES was a shocking return of the WTF! category of booth babe... one that I haven't seen in some time, and it was truly a spectacle that was drawing mostly pained grins and head shaking.

    As for those who say, "get over it... sex sells"... I refer back to that CES image.... though I took a USB drive from the booth representative, and I vaguely remember that they made some sort of USB-enabled accessory, they got neither coverage from my outlet, nor a follow-up consideration after the show. -- How effective was that?

  • bdbr

    A lot of people probably haven't been around long enough to have seen the introduction of booth babes. It hasn't always been this way (though it has for a long time). Once upon a time you could go to Interop and talk to the tech strategists of large vendors. There were a lot of serious technical conversations taking place; just listening in was a learning experience. (of course it was also about getting a bag of swag too)

    Now the vendors' technical people don't even bother to attend. It's all clueless sales people and pretty girls. The level of conversation is ridiculous. The only thing technical is the brochures, which you could just as easily get online. I suppose there's that argument that they make it difficult to sell to women, but really they don't contribute much in selling to men, either.

  • Step it up

    I can see both sides of the playing field here....on one hand I can side with the women and say yes, it's unfortunate that sex does sell and there are way too many stupid women out there who ruin it for the rest of us by selling their bodies for fame and popularity - while smart, business women work themselves to the bone, trying to make it in a man's world - the right way (the hard way).

    However, it is in the hands of women to step it up and actually become the ones who are in charge - they need to strive to be the CEOs/VPs/Founders/Presidents of companies (which is NOT impossible and CAN happen), it just takes a very strong, intelligent, hard-working kind of woman to be able to run & keep up in what we call "the boys club".

  • Thank you for writing

    What a wonderful article!  For many years I have attended technology and real estate conferences and have abhorred the objectification of women at the pleasure of men.   While I as a professional woman am trying to have a meaningful and professional conversation, another woman is walking around, half dressed with no other purpose than to be eye-candy or more for the men who attend. 

  • Aeropage

    Can you clarify why you divide this conceptually between "men" and "women", rather than at the level of individuals?  How is it that this "eye candy" female has any relevance to your status or competency as a professional woman?  Aside from the fact that I know men quite frequently have no issue with being "objectified" (indeed, often enjoy it), I am perfectly clear that a male model in a Speedo has zero impact on me professionally as an engineer--I can't do his job, and he can't do mine.  So... how is it relevant, other than as an attempt to inculcate guilt in a large number of other people, for no gain other than, theoretically, the potential for you to "cash in" socially on the guilt you generate?

  • SeanJ

    Your lack of empathy for a major social issue is pretty archaic .... though maybe you're just here to stir things up. Either way, Forbes has a decent page on gender issues in the workplace to bring you out of the 60s: http://onforb.es/13nnfTB. Worth a visit.

  • Nowhere

    oh God here comes the feminazis ruining some harmless fun. just add some male models so they stop whining

  • DwDunphy

     Yeah, dude. Change sucks. Let's not be innovative businessmen and continue to exclude and insult half the species.

  • Aeropage

    Yes, that is indeed the best strategy to ingratiate yourself with women by contrasting yourself with "the caveman", and thus hopefully get laid.  Oh, that isn't your main purpose with such comments?  Then... if we reviewed your history of personal donations to feminist organizations, we'd undoubtedly see your life rife with such altruistic contributions, correct?  Oh... no?

  • Sastry Nittala

    It is a shame on the society.... Especially the photo "Women at CES" made me cringe... Usage of naked women as objects of display is a sick idea and a shame on the ethical values of the organizers. It  is a greater shame on the models themselves, who have no self respect, and are willing to be treated as objects. (I am a man, not a feminist: my argument would be the same if there was a naked man used as a display: there is more value to a human life than being used as an object)

  • Camille

    Dear Sastry Nittala, I'm sorry to tell you that from what i read iin your respond your actualy a feminist ! Welcom in the club. You seem to belive that women and men should be equal and that's what feminism is about.