The industry debate over the employment of so-called 'booth babes' has been gradually pivoting towards a more enlightened consensus for some years now, as an industry tethered by inertia, gender imbalance and the perceived desires of an established demographic slowly adopts a decreasingly chauvinistic position.
That debate has, largely, been an ethical or morally fuelled one - arguments are generally made about gender perception, creating welcoming, non-threatening environments for women and the exploitation of the workers themselves, but the ardent defenders of the practice have always fallen back to a pragmatic high-ground when suffering the slings and arrows of those pesky social reformists. Booth babes, it's often decried when other justifications run dry, "work". The (usually) men who employ them find them attractive, welcoming and alluring, so why wouldn't everyone else? They break the ice, pull in passers by, ensure your booth's branding is in the background of a thousand creepy souvenir photographs.
"The booth that was staffed with the booth babes generated a third of the foot traffic and less than half the leads"
Spencer Chen, Frontback
The message has always been: if your audience is, or always has been, comprised largely of males, it's a pretty safe bet to play the lowest common denominator and go for lycra and cleavage over knowledge or product engagement. Men will flock to a stall staffed by attractive young women, whether they're able to tell them anything about the product when they get there or not. That's a very simplified perspective, and one that ignores all sorts of the potentially damaging aspects of the practice, but it's a bottom line which has long been trotted out to justify the use of women as window dressing - despite it being detrimental to everyone involved on any number of levels.
The thing is, according to Spencer Chen of Frontback, even that desperate last straw is a rapidly vanishing myth. Staffing a stand with booth babes rather than people who can talk knowledgeably about the product and industry drives away customers and reduces engagement.
In a passionate piece for TechChrunch, Chen gives the benefit of his experience with a nigh-on unique opportunity to A/B test the debate of the effectiveness of emplying young models to front your expensive show stall. After years of running market development for companies like Mixpanel, Appcelerator and Huddle, Chen was offered an opportunity to staff two separate stalls at the same event. Otherwise identical, Chen's only stipulation was that one would employ attractive, young, female 'marketing events consultants', whilst the other was staffed by proven, experienced staff with a knowledge of the product and a track record of doing the job well. The results proved a position which Chen had long known was true.
"The booth that was staffed with the booth babes generated a third of the foot traffic (as measured by conversations or demos with our reps)," writes Chen, "and less than half the leads (as measured by a badge swipe or a completed contact form) while the other team had a consistently packed booth that ultimately generated over 550 leads, over triple from the previous year."
Chen reproduced these results consistently over the following months, and yet the practice persists. He has a few thoughts on why.
"Most of the marketing teams that I have worked with are predominantly women, but it's frankly not the battle that they choose to fight when they are constantly simply fighting for more annual budget"
"So, why do most technology companies still use booth babes? For a few reasons. First off, marketing departments in big companies are under-budgeted, under-staffed, and under-appreciated. Most of the marketing teams that I have worked with are predominantly women, but it's frankly not the battle that they choose to fight when they are constantly simply fighting for more annual budget.
"Secondly, related to marketing departments being under-budgeted, a marketing exec often would have to go to the sales exec for additional budget for these events. Once you do that, the marketing heads have to let the sales teams have a say in how these trade shows are run, and the sales guys love the booth babes (to be fair, the sales guys are the ones that have to stand in a booth for eight hours straight).
"Lastly, there still exists the 'stripper and steaks' mentality in sales, where it's less about the product and more about relationships and the art of the 'close.' Booth babes have long been a part of this dog-and-pony show in this old approach to sales. The new startup enterprise players are obviously changing much of this mindset where the product is the only thing that matters and sales people now facilitate the deal, not close it."
Whilst many shows, publishers and tech companies have dialled back or downright prohibited the practice in recent months and years, the ubiquity of 'show girls' at events like CES and TGS still marks a stubbornly backward attitude. Whether or not that can carry on in the face of damage to the bottom line, so often the last bastion of socially unacceptable marketing practices, remains to be seen.