Last fall, a construction trade show in the United Kingdom got more attention than it bargained for when one vendor hired women in Las Vegas show girl outfits to sell its roof tiles. The uproar caused the UK Construction Week to establish new guidelines this year warning vendors that that their staffing agencies must be vetted by the organizer, the staff must wear clothing “deemed appropriate for a business event,” and they should be representative of the diversity of the company.
“Consider whether you have asked staff to do something that could be deemed to objectify them as men or women as this is strictly forbidden and could result in closure of your stand,” the rules state.
Does this mark the end of the decades long practice of hiring “booth babes” for trade shows? It’s possible that end began years ago, even before #MeToo sharpened everyone’s awareness of the many ways women are objectified at work.
Auto shows, for example, have done away with the models in slinky gowns who stand as mute as the cars they’re accessorizing. Instead, car companies hire “product specialists” — still very attractive models, and mostly women, but they’re also highly knowledgeable experts who can speak volumes about the vehicles. At January’s North American International Auto Show, the Detroit Free Press even noted how the product specialists were dressed to match the brand’s targeted clientele.
Since 2010, the organizers of the Penny Arcade Expo have banned partial nµdity and required promotional models to be educated about the products they rep. Last year, Mic reported that the models at the E3 expo were beginning to lean more toward geeky cosplay than simply skimpy outfits.
That’s not to say vendors are completely doing away with hiring pretty women to lure in the largely male attendees at their shows. Tinsley Poor, owner and operator of Las Vegas-based Grayscale Agency said that demand for staffing shows is so high that a lot of new staffing companies fill the need simply by posting Craig’s List ads, using nothing but their photos as qualifications. By contrast the more selective agencies like hers advertise their staff as brand ambassadors.
“We pride ourselves in hiring men and women with education, with marketing and sales backgrounds,” Poor, who started as a promotional model herself, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “They can listen to clients, they can hear their pitch, learn what the client wants to accomplish at that event, and represent themselves just like they’re part of the company.”
After the agency vets its hires, it is up to the client to choose them — and Poor admits, “They do go by looks first, but it’s also important that they understand that’s not the most important thing.”
College student Casey Lawrence, who has worked as a promotional model for two years, tells Yahoo she doesn’t mind that appearance is what gets her the gig, as long as she knows she’s there to do more than look pretty.
“I love the flexibility that it offers me,” she says, adding that she enjoys learning about new industries at every job. “Yes, you are kind of like the eye candy in order to draw people in, but at the same time you’re representing usually a really big respectable company. I feel like it’s an honor.”
If more industries decide to adopt rules like UK Construction Week, both Lawrence and Poor says it would regrettably hurt some models, but it could also benefit those with a little more marketing know-how.
“Typically, I choose not to represent companies that are going to give me a really skimpy outfit,” Lawrence explains. “I think it would open up the job market for girls who are more on the conservative side. Sometimes when I say I’m a promotional model, people make a face, like, ‘Oh, I wonder what you have to wear for that.’ I think it would give a better face to the entire industry as a whole.”
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