We have a winner for worst column about the New York Auto Show, and it comes from a TIME writer who thinks the notion of booth babes is antiquated. Hell, if anyone knows about an antiquated profession I guess it's someone who writes for TIME. The whole thing reads less like a thoughtful take on how the industry treats women, and more like a dude trying to make up for his uncomfortable erection.
When I saw the headline "It's Time to Ditch the Booth Babes" I thought I'd agree with the author, Matt Vella, as I'm not a huge fan of the booth babe, a creature you unfortunately used to see a lot of at these type of events.
Then I actually read it and realized he was taking about the New York Auto Show.
Unless you've got Persistent Sexual Arousal Disorder, the people inside the Javits Center where the show is held are usually wearing more clothing than the people outside the show. There are a few exceptions, and shows like SEMA are their own beast, but the modern auto show isn't staffed with booth babes but with what we call "booth professionals."
The people, both men and women (I didn't once see Vella acknowledge that there are men who do this), who stand next to the cars are more than just eye candy. They're often well-trained, seasoned professionals who travel from show to show with the cars and know as much (or more) about it than any salesperson.
For instance, here's a take from a woman who is both a "booth professional" and also a smart car geek.
It's awkward. For me. Here I am wandering around, casting a lecherous gaze at this motorcycle or that coupe and I suddenly find myself making eye contact with an exploited model. First of all, the muscles in my face aren't developed enough to be able to configure themselves to telegraph a message of "I'm not lusting after you, pardon me for looking at you that way. I was lusting after that inanimate object six inches to your left." More importantly, the practice takes attention away from the point of the show: the cars, which every year get more impressive and more technologically stunning.
There's a good argument to be made about the efficacy of just throwing any random woman in high heels next to a product, which as an argument made better here, but the main issue with this piece is that he doesn't appear to have actually tried to talk to one of the booth professionals.
If he had, he'd have probably learned something about whatever vehicle he was looking at and, with a little probing, heard a few hilarious stories.
And then, of course, there's this:
I know what some booth babe enthusiasts are going to say: trade shows provide a much-needed employment stimulus to New York City's struggling acting and modeling community. (This year, I heard one of the guys unfolding tables for a cocktail reception gripe, "This isn't where I thought drama camp would take me.") And it's true that many of the hard-working models act as ambassadors during the show, answering questions and giving succinct history lessons on this or that particular brand. I'm sympathetic.
See, here's more proof this guy didn't talk to any of them. Many, if not most, of the booth professionals at the show are not local. They travel from show to show and often work for the same company for years, going on trips to learn more about the vehicles just like journalists do.
They do tend to dress up and most are on the more attractive end of spectrum, but most just dress appropriately for the brand. For instance, the men and women who work the luxury automakers tend to wear nice suits and dresses. For more youthful brands they dress more youthfully.
If Vella is making the point that we can't handle booth professionals because they will, de facto, be objectified, then I agree and he himself is proof of this. Because they're attractive he has assumed they're dumb and avoided them.
Either that or he already had an idea for this column when he walked in and didn't let any facts get in the way (evidence of this comes from the fact that they couldn't find a revealing photo from the New York Auto Show and instead used a pic from a minor auto show in China).
Should we get rid of the booth babe? Sure. It is an outdated, ineffective, and sexist trope we'd be better without.
But we're always going to want to have someone with the car and, in most cases, the people we have are exactly the kind of intelligent, well-informed ambassadors any brand would want.
(I've invited Vella via Twitter to come in and defend himself).