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    Future Sex: What Booth Babes Say About Tech

    Written by

    Kelly Bourdet

    When I clicked on Business Insider’s example of illustrious, hard-hitting journalism that is an advertisement-ridden slideshow, “Meet the Booth Babes of CES 2013,” I'm not quite sure what happened. Something inside me snapped a little. I rage-pitched an article on booth babes though it's obviously not a new mode of marketing. And reactions to this mode of marketing aren't new either.

    But I suppose I believe that we should keep talking about it, that those who are disappointed in its continued use should continue to write about it. Despite the protestations of booth babes don’t represent some cheeky, irreverent tradition, but instead reflect a culture where men’s cavalier attitudes toward women’s objectification remain systemic.

    I am not anti-sex or anti-sexualization of all people in all situations; that would be ludicrous. Using sex to sell a product is not new. I am aware of that. Pushing the envelope to provoke outraged journalists to cover your product isn’t new either, and some of the more absurd uses of booth babes at this year’s CES, which wrapped up last night in Las Vegas, were probably plays for that type of PR. The BBC investigated the controversial use of booth babes at CES and, if their 2013 follow up doc is any indication, things have changed very little since their original reporting. 

    Sure, booth babes are a gimicky grab for attention. But the gimick only works if the audience is male. And the presence of such a gendered gimick only serves to reinforce the idea that the tech world is largely by men and for men.

    Let’s not discuss whether sexualized marketing works, but rather what its existence indicates about the values and gender composition of the industries that use it. Carl's Jr. was saying two things with its dumb ad featuring Paris Hilton eating a giant burger on top of a car. First, in a grab for attention, they were saying, look at us!  But they were also melding different elements of masculinity into one outrageous scenario. The bikini, the boobs, the car, they let us know, not, this burger is delicious, but, this burger is manly.

    Overt sexualization is already present in the advertisement of many industries, but let’s consider where it’s most prevalent: Car and motorcycle shows. Think about it. Car models are certainly another incarnation of booth babes. Beer and sports advertisements are also commonly rife with breasts and double entendres.

    But in all these ads and in all these industries, the sexualized marketing furthers an agenda of macsulinizing the product. The simple act of using sexy ladies in your ad campaign indicates that your target audience is primarily men and that your product enhances masculinity.

    The most common justification for the continued use of booth babes in 2013 seems to be that they lighten the atmosphere of what would otherwise become a dull, unending sea of technology. Yet CES presented some of the most amazing advances in consumer electronics of the past year. Much of this is very, very exciting to CES’s target audience--tech writers, tech buyers, and the tech community in general. Anyone who is drawn to the specs of your hard drive by nude, body-painted “fembots” does not really give a shit about the specs on any hard drive.

    If companies want to spice up an otherwise highly-technical convention, then they should hire some circus performers. Hire aerial artists to perform floating above your booth. Hire a fire-eater or Apollo Robbins. The ostensible purpose of booth babes is to inform conference goers about products, but because they are hired models whom tech companies give short briefings, they can literally hire almost anyone to do that job. Some women hired to promote at CES are probably very intelligent; some probably aren’t. Hire a high school kid who loves technology and wants the opportunity to be inside CES. Hire a college electrical engineering student who wants a future with your company.

    Here’s a fun thought experiment, men. Imagine your gender has been systematically excluded from higher education for the entire history of mankind, save the last half century. Imagine women run almost everything. Now imagine they have an amazing trade show to showcase all the cool shit they made in the past year and they hire a bunch of super-handsome dudes with six-pack abs to wear thongs and show you their creations. As a man, would you be stoked to go to this place? Would you be cool with a “tradition” that treated your gender as an accessory to innovation and not as a gender capable of innovation? Simply transposing gender roles for this experiment is imperfect, but I’m sure you get my point.

    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. 

    Follow Kelly Bourdet on Twitter: @kellybourdet

    Photo via BBC