Marketing at the RSA Conference

Marcus Ranum has an interesting screed on "booth babes" in the RSA Conference exhibition hall:

I'm not making a moral argument about sexism in our industry or the objectification of women. I could (and probably should) but it's easier to just point out the obvious: the only customers that will be impressed by anyone's ability to hire pretty models to work their booth aren't going to be the ones signing the big purchase orders. And, it's possible that they're thinking your sales team are going to be a bunch of testosterone-laden assholes who'd be better off selling used tires. If some company wants to appeal to the consumer that's going to jump at the T&A maybe they should relocate up the street to O'Farrell where they can include a happy ending with their product demo.

Mark Rothman on the same topic.

EDITED TO ADD (3/11): Winn Schwartau makes a similar point.

Posted on March 5, 2013 at 1:58 PM • 43 Comments

Comments

KorayMarch 5, 2013 2:14 PM

Actually I have (second hand) knowledge that quite often those who sign the purchase orders (not in security, but engineering in my case) were routinely taken to gentlemen's clubs and this sort of practice produces results more often than one would hope.

We may seem to believe that people, who make big decisions, are more rational or less sexist than they are.

Marcus FanMarch 5, 2013 2:27 PM

I have always enjoyed Marcus' position on arguments for many years, however, I do find this to be a bit ... can't think of any better word ... hypocritical ... given it takes next to no time to research Marcus and his avid photography personal work, specifically the subjects of a lot of his work.

DavidMarch 5, 2013 2:35 PM

Nonsense. Booth babes get engineers to approach, to get them interested, to get them to talk about the product, to carry product literature in their company's bag, etc. Management/executives hear their people talking about the company, see lots of bags with the logo, it sticks in their mind, they ask middle managers "Have you looked at ...? I hear a lot about it."
It's marketing plain and simple. People criticized ads in Byte magazine in the early 80s for pretty girls in ads with hardware. Pretty girls still attract attention.

No OneMarch 5, 2013 2:53 PM

@Marcus Fan: Haven't looked at his work, so I'm making an assumption, but female form as art is different from female form for advertising purposes.

TimMarch 5, 2013 2:56 PM

Yeah this seems like the sort of think you'd like to believe is true, but isn't. Like how you'd hope radio adverts with intensely annoying jingles wouldn't work well, but clearly they do. (Damn you SEH Windows and Conservatories! I will never buy from you as long as I live.)

On the other hand, this is the sort of thing that may backfire when the customer actually wants to talk business and can't find anyone who knows anything (as noted in the article).

Michael BradyMarch 5, 2013 2:59 PM

@ Marcus Fan

Hypocritical? Only if Ranum ever said nudity is wrong, sold his security services on the same page as his pictures of naked women, or staffed an RSA booth with his models signing prints (good luck getting down that aisle). His NSFW lens work is for sale on its own merits http://www.ranum.com/fun/lens_work/forsale/index.html

As for booth babes, they are an embarassing feature at physical security conferences too. Maybe they work better at logical security shows because the vendors have a lot more money to spend and their targeted clientele don't talk to women as often in the real world...

Mike MolMarch 5, 2013 3:10 PM

Forget about attracting engineers. Attract the bloggers and the journalists.

YourmammyMarch 5, 2013 3:15 PM

Next to nothing has been purchased at my company because we evaluated and picked a winner. I can't say winner in most cases, we always pick the lesser of the 3-4 evils we have to choose from. Then the brass plays golf (and who knows what else)with the Rep from Symantec, and next quarter we are a full Symantec shop practically sight unseen. Or we get new brass, and they bring in half of the people that used to work at where new brass came from, and we switch to whatever firewall they used at previous company, and not because of any real need to switch. They have a budget, it needs to be spent, they spend.
This is not just my company, I consult and I have many colleagues/friends that all see the same things. Mgmt comes in to ask, and we do some evaluations on a few products, as long as Company-X was evaluated, no matter how poorly we said they did, it get's in. Then newer brass comes in and it starts again. I've seen the "beltway mentality" my whole career, and not just in the beltway. It's rampant and it's everywhere.
I bet a booth babe does work for foot traffic, I certainly want them to scan my bar(code)... but that is only foot traffic and pamphlets, it's not what makes or breaks a decision to buy a product.

ElizabethMarch 5, 2013 3:16 PM

I haven't had the (mis)fortune of attending a conference where companies used these booth babes, but I think I would be quite uncomfortable standing next to a scantily clad model and trying to talk business. Enough so that I would probably avoid those booths entirely.

But obviously I'm not in the demographic these marketing strategies are targeting. It's a catch-22, because women are hesitant to attend conferences that have this kind of marketing, and so marketing teams continue to use a male-oriented marketing scheme that makes women uncomfortable. I think Booth Babes will be around until we get to a point where there are enough women in IT with purchasing power put off by these marketing techniques that they become ineffective.

Clive RobinsonMarch 5, 2013 3:27 PM

It's well known that "sex sells" not just to men but women as well.

Go have a look at the number of "phallus shaped" containers for womens personal hygiene products such as shower gell etc in the 1980's and 90's. It still goes on but it's more subtly done these days.

Over in the UK one well known breakfast cereal manufacture went compleatly and utterly over the top with seperate male attracting and women attracting adverts. It was interesting to note who was complaining and about what. It served the purpose of getting lots of mentions in various news outlets.

Then in the UK there is an insurance reseller with a cartoon drawing that contains a "confused Carol" a dog and what looks like showers of gold coins (to represent nectar points). In one addvert since stopped they had the dog running under Confused Carols skirt and come out licking his chops. Later adds have had various female and male charecters drawn in with "boobs bouncing" "tight shorts" and many upskirt panty shots.

It gets the company talked about and they change the adverts fast enough such that when the Advertising Standards people come knocking with adverse decisions the adds have been replaced with others.

I happened to be in Germany back in 2000 when a series of adds were run by a bank. The poster advert had a dear in copulation with a stag with another stag mounting the first stag and an appropriate by line...

We have again in the UK had a bread advert involving a young lad and a school girl. The advert was about the fact that dad was not there but had made some toast with this new bread and the lad was passing messages along. As the girl turned to leave it was very clear her school skirt was so short it left little to the imagination on what would be easy to say was an underage girl, the parting line as the camera held a rear view center focus was from the lad saying 'And dad says you cann't go out dressed like that'.

And these adds are the tip of the iceberg all of which are designed to use sex in one form or another as close to the "grey edge" of breaking advertising standards rules to cause complaint / talk in the news as much as they can.

MichaelMarch 5, 2013 3:28 PM

"Booth Babes" are common even in female-dominated professional like librarianship (there are always some at American Library Association meetings).

Attactive women sell. Those who doubt it need only check out any womens' magazine.

There is no data to support that "booth babes" make women uncomfortable, other than anecdata.

GweihirMarch 5, 2013 3:42 PM

I did a sampling of "booth babes" a long time ago at CBit: Directly ask them a technical question. Results varied greatly from direct competent answer (yes, some of the "babes" were actual engineers and quite happy to be taken seriously), to competent referrals, indirect referrals, to complete confusion.

My take is that having somebody around that can direct customers according to question and is easy to talk to is a definite plus. At least for the larger booths that will be hired help, and while it does not have to be "babes", I do not mind the eye-candy if they are competent to do the job. "Babes" that have no clue or are not instructed as to where refer customers in relation to their questions are an insult both to the customer and the "babes" in question.

I should also point out that the women doing these jobs either do have a choice (in which case it is theirs to make) or do need the money (in which case I would consider it highly problematic to remove this opportunity for them, as that would likely force them to do worse jobs). I also see no real moral problem with "having pretty women standing around". It is not like they represent every woman or even themselves in general. And a lot of jobs on all levels have potentially uncomfortable aspects. A bit of tolerance with regard to them is required of anybody that want to support themselves financially.

In short: I do not see a problem with "booth babes". I do see a severe problem with bribery when vendors start to bribe customers, e.g. with the services of an escort. But even in that scenario I do not see a problem for the escort, she is just doing her trade.

GweihirMarch 5, 2013 3:57 PM

@Michael, Elizabeth:

"There is no data to support that "booth babes" make women uncomfortable, other than anecdata."

My personal sampling of female engineers seems to agree. While I do not dispute that some may feel uncomfortable, it seems to be a small minority. I also have to say that "scantily clad" is an overstatement in most cases, unless you have very conservative standards.

Brad Hicks (@jbradhicks)March 5, 2013 5:13 PM

I did 6 years in the financial services industry, including evaluating security projects, and let me tell you two things:

(a) I absolutely agree that booth babes are inappropriate, and that (contrary to what the latter author writes) I'm just as likely to form a negative impression of a tech vendor for spending money on sports cars or stage magicians for their displays, I want to know that you're investing in the project, not marketing.

(b) I wish people who think like me were the ones who signed the purchase orders. In the financial services industry, at least when I was in it back in the '90s, the booth babe is just the billboard; the actual six-figure purchase order doesn't get signed until the sales rep sends over at least one hooker. (And, in general, agrees to a 5% kickback to the purchasing manager.)

If you think companies are buying security products based on how effective they are, I think that's so cute of you.

GLSMarch 5, 2013 5:33 PM

Sex sells - deal with it. You need to read "SOLD: Don't Go Poor and Miserable Being Sold Happiness". Or at least look at the 90-second video at www.dontgopoor.com.

Auto dealers are the consummate sales-people and the industry is predominantly male oriented. You won't see more eye-candy at a exhibition hall (no pun intended) than what you'll find at the annual NADA trade show.

SteveMarch 5, 2013 5:57 PM

"Booth Babe" or otherwise, anyone working the booth who can't describe the differentiators between their product and that sold at the next booth is wasting my time. There's too much focus on the hook and not enough on the product. I find online reviews and whitepapers a much more valuable tool for product evaluation than anything that happened on the expo floor at RSA this year.

John E. BredehoftMarch 5, 2013 6:02 PM

The issue goes beyond booth babes - or hot sports cars, or magicians.

As Ranum notes in the update, the issue is the set of metrics you choose to use.

If you measure booth effectiveness by the number of badges scanned, then by all means use booth babes or hand out five dollar bills or whatever.

If you measure booth effectiveness by the actual sales resulting from a trade show, then perhaps different strategies are in order. Perhaps (as some state in other comments) that means sending a hooker to the purchasing guy, but I've yet to see the evidence that booth traffic tactics necessarily lead to increased sales.

regexpMarch 5, 2013 6:15 PM

What Marcus gets wrong is that RSA is not a conference for geeks. Its a conference for people who buy things. They are male. And they are straight. Vendors are just using time tested tactics to get those people into their booth.

But saying - that sexism is and remains a huge issue in the InfoSec space - to the point where those that attend cons like DefCon have made specific attempts to acknowledge and address it in the last few years. But then you have cons like THOTCon being held in garages with muscle cars (which was actually a step up from prior two years). There is a simple tone deafness to the issue.

But after saying all that- as someone who is gay - would it kill a vendor to have a hot guy in a speedo in their booth?

IchininMarch 5, 2013 7:20 PM

Does not matter if its a woman wearing a bikini or a salesman wearing a suit as both are equally useless. Put someone there who knows the product and WTF he/she is actually selling.

There is no substitute for real knowledge.

WinterMarch 6, 2013 3:00 AM

When looking at university students, a sizable fraction (half?) of the girls could easily work as "booth babe".

It is not difficult to fill up a booth with smart looking girls that can outdo most visitors in subject matter too. Any halfway decent university department could do it with ease.

However, I would be wary of a company that is unable to hire such smart women, and has to resort to looks-only booth babes.

So, you could see the booth-babes as an honest signal:

If the booth-babes are uninformed, the company is obviously unable to hire the best and brightest.

WooMarch 6, 2013 4:02 AM

At the trade fairs I've been going to, I have made it a habit to annoy the heck out of booth babes. I'm quite immune to their appeals, so I approach them with technical questions (most of which could be answered by simply looking at the product posters behind them), and making fun of them when they can't answer any of them. Bonus points for handing me off to a sales droid who will be met with slightly rougher scrutiny.
Usually I'll try to grab some marketing loot, and then finally piss off the droids by not letting them scan my badge or not handing them my card.
If two rivalling companies have their booths next to each other, I'll also try to pitch their sales droids against each other, or dragging them into triangle debates.
Yes, I am really despised at trade fairs, but as long as I'm waving the fat wallet, they still play my game like the faithful and dumb mutts they are.

pfoggMarch 6, 2013 4:22 AM

Applying 'sex sells' to this situation might be too narrow an interpretation.

Magazines in check-out lines (intended as potential impulse buys) that are targeting an adult female demographic generally put attractive women on the cover. Police departments have learned that when they want to calm people down, a female officer is a better choice. The former is based purely on appearances (using static photographs), while the latter is about patterns of interaction, but neither of them is relying on sexual attraction.

JohnPMarch 6, 2013 8:13 AM

Met with a contracting recruiter last week.
She was gorgeous. I will not try to avoid future meetings with her because of that.

I'm a shallow man.

Marketing "babes" across all industries use their looks, beauty to get our attention and sell things. Doesn't matter if it is software, hardware, pills, or pimping people like this chick does. Same-same.

Of course, I'll need to do some more "research" on the topic. Got any links?

Petréa MitchellMarch 6, 2013 8:59 AM

Gweihir:

Your desire to understand the feelings of your co-workers is commendable, but interrogating members of a distinct minority of a group about whether prevailing customs in that group make them feel uncomfortable, especially when you are a member of the majority of that group, is guaranteed to produce unreliable data.

TomMarch 6, 2013 9:16 AM

Marcus' status as an amatuer pornographer weakens his standing as a commentator on this topic. Stick to firewalls.

GweihirMarch 6, 2013 9:44 AM

@Petréa Mitchell:

Still a lot more reliable than to say "I am (and consequentially) many women are uncomfortable with this". The burden of proof is actually on your side not on mine, as the default state is obviously "neutral". I just reported that I have some indications supporting the default state, but it is not needed at all.

And please can the thinly veiled ad hominem. It is just unsophisticated.

You also seem to miss that this is not the generic situation you describe. Intent? At least in current "feminist" propaganda, this "argumentation technique" is prevalent. Never, ever look at individuals (except themselves), always make it about principles. I will have you know that I have known all of the women I asked personally for some time and could place the answers in context. So this is actually more in the nature of an expert opinion based on unstructured observations, instead of a simplistic poll like you seem to indicate. The one possible skew I see is that all of them are competent IT professionals and have zero reason to see a "booth babe" as competition (as explained to me by one of them).

nycmanMarch 6, 2013 10:42 AM

So is the complaint about the attractiveness of the women or the amount of skin shown? Perhaps we can do a thought experiment. Two similar booths. One with attractive women and one with ugly women. Which does better? Extend it to men, one with attractive men and one with ugly men. I don't see too many short-fat-bald-old salesmen in tech. Well dressed vs slob? I think we get the idea, the booth that is overall all around more attractive will attract more people.

To the people who try to talk shop with the booth babes, let me ask you this: Do you walk into a company and start asking technical questions to the receptionist? Negotiate contract terms with the engineer? Ask detailed technical questions to the sales person? I may be the first to tell you: You are doing it wrong. The booth babes are receptionists. They are there to keep you around in case the company reps are busy with other people. They are there for light banter, get you literature, and answer very general questions. They are often hired from agencies and have experience working shows, standing and putting on a smile the whole day. They are not (usually) sales people or (usually) the lead product architect. Their primary job is to say hi and welcome you to the booth. Learn their purpose and you may just enjoy the cons a bit more.

And as far as how much do they cost? For being a booth babe? I have no idea, but let's just say $20/hour goes to the agency they're from. In the overall marketing budget, that's a tiny expense. It costs more to fly an employee anywhere for anything.

John CampbellMarch 6, 2013 11:25 AM

From Marcus' article: "In other words: I don't want to get rid of booth babes, I want to get rid of stupid marketing."

Ummmm... isn't the phrase "stupid marketing" a redundancy? Don't those words USUALLY imply each other? As a techie have you _ever_ considered someone working in "marketing" as anything other than stupid? Not ignorant, *stupid*. I don't care what they're selling. The only organizations with any any truth in their marketing (top to bottom) are brothels.

Marketing is... ummm... marketing. It is about appealing to *something* within a large number of human beings in order to get attention. Attention that may be, even if only for 15 seconds, drawn to something someone wants to sell. (Flashback to the start of the "Roman Empire" and "French Revolution" segments of "History of the World, Part I". Let's not get into merchandising or product placement... ummm... "Spaceballs the Security Blanket!".)

Remember, no matter how bright someone is, there are multiple layers (and hormones) to draw on in order to undermine the "higher level thinking" and divert the so-called higher functions into a little message.

(sighs)

All right, all right, so there is more than a little bit of truth in "respectability is inversely proportional to sexuality... or even sexual appeal" ... yet marketing usually tries to leverage this one nominally covert motivational drive to garner attention.

What we need are more female execs and techies to go to these shows to even things out...

... but, then, marketeering droids will just hire "studious studs" in addition to "booth babes" as a draw to their booths.

(laughs maniacally)

Veering back ON-TOPIC for this blog:

I wonder how the TSA would be perceived if their hiring pool for agents came from these modeling agencies?

Miguel FarahMarch 6, 2013 12:31 PM

There's a limit to the effectiveness of a "booth babe": several years ago, at a local conference, a certain Italian PC manufacturer decided to go the "extra mile" and hired world-class booth babes that completely eclipsed everyone else; it was, for lack of a better term, a curb-stomp battle, with pretty much everyone permanently orbiting the company's booth.

The result? Their sales that year were incredibly poor. No one even remembered what they were selling! They didn't pull that trick the next year...

Petréa MitchellMarch 6, 2013 12:32 PM

Gweihir:

Whoa there, dude! The "side" I'm on here is Anthropology 101. I'm giving you established science. Feminst literary theory has nothing to do with it.

I know it's going to upset you even more to be told that the fact that you know these women well makes your survey even less reliable. But: science.

If you don't believe me, and I'm sure you don't at this point, go find an anthro textbook that covers how to do field studies right. Or a marketing textbook that covers how to do consumer studies right. (Or you could take the situational psychology route, but, in all seriousness, only if you think your blood pressure isn't high enough already. Because that'll be just one thing after another that's hard to accept.)

JRDMarch 6, 2013 2:18 PM

Booth babes are sexist and the men who fawn over them are also sexist. I'd use profanity but I'm afraid my post would get deleted by a moderator.
I give 0 flips if sex sells. It is still crass and not something that should be done. Giving all male passers-by blow jobs might "sell" too but they aren't doing that because someone drew a line and said let's not cross it.
The line is still too far out.

TanukiMarch 6, 2013 2:34 PM

"Booth-Babes" are clearly targeting the straight-male attendee-demographic: I wonder if, in these gender-spectrum-enlightened times, there's perhaps a marketing-niche of offering "Booth-Bears" or "Booth-Otters" to target the gay-male expo-clientele?

David D.March 6, 2013 3:01 PM

I was at RSA this year and I have to say that I was ok with the booth babes, but thought they'd gone too far when i saw the marketing team in Catholic school girl outfits and the other one with busty girls with advertising screens mounted on their upper chests (where they presume everyone will be staring).

Sad Really, I asked tech questions at the booths and mostly got Jr. Sales people saying "We don't really know how our product works, but here take this brochure on something semi-related".

RSA SF used to be the place where companies used to make their actual Architects and Product Engineers attend, now we get more Booth Babes and marketing types.

Its been a while since I spotted an actual Cryptographer there who wasn't speaking (such as Bruce).

I want better quality interactions, not more flash, however pretty it is.

GweihirMarch 6, 2013 4:52 PM

@Petréa Mitchell:
Why do you assume I am "upset"? I am not. I also happen to actually be a scientist, so your bluster leaves me completely unimpressed.

Now go take a cold hard look at your own stance here. Hint: You repeatedly completely missed my point.

GweihirMarch 6, 2013 5:01 PM

@David D.:
For your two examples, I would agree that they cross the line and are an insult to the customers as well.

Seems that if you actually understand the type of product you want to buy, the RSA conference is just a waste of time. Not that that surprises me much.

KEithBMarch 6, 2013 6:32 PM

Try a Cable TV show sometime. 8^)

Of course, one could argue that booth girls at the Playboy Channel booth are appropriate for what they are selling!

Clive RobinsonMarch 6, 2013 11:47 PM

@ David D,

RSA SF used to be the place where companies used to make their actual Architects and Product Engineers attend, now we get more Booth Babes and marketing types

It is sadly the fate of all successful technical shows.

What happens in the early days is the moneey is in a niche area, so the show is for those in that niche. Then the niche brooadens and becomes more mainstream sso the show adapts to follow the money. Eventually the niche element nolonger attends and the show becomes a big market fest resting on it's past image. acouple of things can then happen such as it re-invents it's self in a broader way or it goes the way of the dinosaur...

Personaly I don't think RSA is worth the effort now as it's easier to find more niche shows. Will RSA make it into the big time or just become irrelevant to the industry? At the moment it's an open question but from many points of view it's not looking hopeful...

Cauliflower CheeseMarch 7, 2013 4:50 AM

@John Campbell

> As a techie have you _ever_ considered someone working in "marketing" as anything other than stupid?

Eric Sink http://www.ericsink.com/Marketing_for_Geeks.html


> The only organizations with any any truth in their marketing (top to bottom) are brothels.

I Claudius and one of the Dirty Harry films disagree.

GweihirMarch 8, 2013 9:03 PM

@KEithB: Product samples are entirely legit and respectful marketing. With the Playboy Channel you would have to object to the product itself instead.

Nick PMarch 9, 2013 10:40 AM

"@KEithB: Product samples are entirely legit and respectful marketing. With the Playboy Channel you would have to object to the product itself instead. "

I object that the channel's reps weren't there handling out samples. You know, for decoy purposes... or some security-related reason...

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