CES 'booth babe' guidelines revised but ban rejected

Models at CES Many of the models at CES wore significantly less clothing than the women in this picture

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The Consumer Electronics Show (CES)'s organisers are to revise their guidelines on "booth babes", but have once again rejected calls to introduce a dress code.

Campaigners want exhibitors to be banned from using models wearing scanty or provocative attire.

CES's managers suggested such a move would be "unenforceable".

However, the UK's Eurogamer Expo recently announced a similar restriction for its event.

Shanghai's ChinaJoy digital conference and Los Angeles's E3 video games expo have previously issued restrictions on the use of semi-clad models - but to limited long-term effect.

'Old school'

CES is run by the US's Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), a not-for-profit lobby group representing the tech industry.

Although it is far from being the only trade show organiser to permit the use of female models, it has become the focus of some critics' ire.

Analysis

I've attended countless launches and events, where being both female and not a booth babe was considered somewhat of a novelty.

Though this has changed a little in recent years, there's no question that the world of tech - and reporting on it - is still male-dominated.

Advertising implies that anything looks better with an attractive person holding it. Yet making a product desirable by placing it in the hand of a human is done much more subtly in contexts outside of the tech trade show.

Are companies who hire booth babes hoping that product buyers are too distracted by a lady in a bikini to ask searching questions about the technology? Or that we, the press, will happily focus on anything that "looks good" regardless of the product's quality or uniqueness?

To deny companies the right to hire attractive ladies to draw attention to their particular widget sounds dangerously like censorship.

However, as brands are becoming more aware of how this practice is perceived by consumers, they might be tempted to try something different in order to grab our attention.

This may be in part because of its long association with the phenomenon.

A recent article by The Atlantic suggested the term "booth babe" had been coined to refer to women at a CES event in 1986.

More recently the CEA's President Gary Shapiro split opinion when he told the BBC that the practice was "a little old school, but it does work". He added, during the 2012 interview, that the CEA's opinion on the matter was "irrelevant".

A petition by a Forbes journalist has since been published on Change.org calling on him to impose a ban. It highlighted one exhibitor - a hard drive manufacturer - which had employed four female models to pose wearing only bikini bottoms, pasties and body paint at 2013's show.

"I'm not against spokesmodels," wrote Connie Guglielmo.

"Hire all the pretty people you want. Just dress them as though they actually work at your company."

'Talibanesque ban'

CEA recently confirmed that its guidelines for 2014's event would be amended to warn attendees that the use of "booth babes" might reflect poorly on exhibitors, and that they should give "thoughtful consideration" to the matter to avoid alienating or offending others.

Karen Chupka, CEA's senior vice president of events and conferences, told the BBC that further action might be taken following an ongoing review but indicated that a ban was unlikely.

The booth babe debate revisited at CES 2013

"We do not want to create and impose arbitrary or unenforceable rules, or worse, inch our event towards a Talibanesque ban on exposure of skin," she told the BBC.

"Mandating a dress code of business casual for 150,000 people or even for the subset of 51,000 exhibitor personnel, as some suggest, would mean banning blue jeans, t-shirts and other common apparel while also trampling on freedom of expression.

"More, mandating and enforcing a dress code would present a challenge to our security personnel and divert them from their most important and essential duty: ensuring the safety of all of our customers.

"We also recognise the right of our exhibitors to make individual decisions about marketing their products and their exhibits as they see fit and that meet our legal guidelines as well as generally acceptable standards of decency."

E3's u-turn

CEA may wish to avoid following in E3's footsteps.

The video games show's organiser, the Entertainment Software Association, introduced limits on what models could wear in 2006.

"Material, including live models, conduct that is sexually explicit and/or sexually provocative, including but not limited to nudity, partial nudity and bathing suit bottoms, are prohibited on the show floor, all common areas, and at any access points to the show," its guidelines stated, adding that it might impose a $5,000 (£3,183) fine on those who disobeyed.

But in 2009 the ESA reversed its position saying it wanted to let publishers make their booths "active, captivating and energising" after complaints that this and other changes had made the event feel "soulless".

Despite this, Eurogamer is pressing ahead with a ban of its own at its London expo in September.

The original report which stoked controversy in January 2012

The move followed complaints about Virgin Gaming models having QR codes printed on their buttocks last year. Eurogamer's event are open to the public, unlike CES.

"Our [new] policy is that if people turn up in character then we're not against that," said David Lilley, the event's director.

"If, for example, Square Enix wanted to bring their new Lara Croft, then that's fine."

"But just having publicity girls for the sake of drawing attention to women is not really relevant or acceptable. If you see a girl wearing hotpants... or publicity girls that are undraped then it just doesn't seem appropriate."

Mr Lilley added that he believed "common sense" could be used to determine what clothing was allowed without becoming overly prescriptive.

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