I’m a dad with two teenage daughters. I worry about their safety, I worry about their equal standing in the world, and I worry about how others approach them. I want them to live in a world where they are judged on the merit of their work, the choices they make in life, and their respect of the needs and values of others. Basic dad stuff.
That said, I find myself struggling somewhat with the outrage and handwringing about HyperShop’s over-the-top effort to attract attention from attendees at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. I have genuine mixed feelings about Hyper’s choice to center their display on four nearly naked models. Honestly, I don’t share the indignation reverberating through the social web. I am not sure why.
Some of you will rush to the judgment that I don’t see the problem because I am a 50+ white guy who has enjoyed a position of privilege throughout his life. I can’t deny those facts. But hear me out before you rush to judgment. You may still disagree, and that is fine. I welcome the conversation and an opportunity to change my perspective.
We are a species who make judgments about success or failure, strength or weakness, and consumed or consumer based on appearance. Perhaps it is distant echoes of Darwinism, a remnant of survival of the fittest and seeking a partner most likely to carry the gene pool forward into the next generation. I really don’t know. But I do know that we make choices in life based on attraction. We all do.
In marketing terms these choices are often represented in the shorthand of objectification. Symbols and images, not just of women, provoke a predictable response in an intended audience. As a filmmaker and storyteller I have a clear idea how a particular image, framing, lighting, music choice, or character will be read by my audience. I understand how culturally and contextually an audience absorbs a symbol. It usually provokes emotional engagement and an association with something. That association can be with a person, or that association can be with a thing. It is the core of effective advertising, storytelling and brand awareness.
I don’t think of myself as a misogynist. Perhaps because of my apparent indifference you may. I work to eliminate violence against all people, men and women alike. The challenge comes in how we define denigration of others. Is Boticelli a misogynist for painting “The Birth of Venus” or can that be construed as a celebration of the human form? Is Hyper’s display a celebration of the human form? To someone perhaps it is. My mom taught me you can’t argue taste, but what is objectification and what is taste? That line is constantly shifting as our cultural values change.
Granted, comparing Boticelli to four “booth babes” is rather absurd. But I want to frame the idea that we all pass judgment and form perceptions around sexuality differently. What you find prurient others may find appropriate. Which is right? How do we build that scaffolding in a way that defines the line between taste and fact? How do we protect the weak and disenfranchised without a climate of intolerance that dooms the effort to failure?
Objectification of women, particularly in the media, is offensive and often a smokescreen for deeper fears about power, control and sexuality. If you do your homework as a marketer you don’t have to take the shortcut of leveraging a titillating tagline or provocative image to sell your product. Or at least you work to hide it well. Sexuality (and the resultant objectification) is manifest as a primal drive in the human species, and if you are trying to sell something you leverage what works. It isn’t news that sex sells.
Perhaps Hyper has a clear understanding of their target audience, the folks most likely to purchase large quantities of their products and put it stores. The booth was not aimed at consumers directly, but those who buy for consumers. And it was not aimed at the tech sector either and the struggle to engage women in significant numbers to a traditionally male dominated career. Perhaps Hyper knows their demographics and they were narrow-casting their message to the folks who represent their revenue stream, not really caring about the reaction of others. Or perhaps Hyper’s marketing staff is made up of freshly-minted frat boys who have no clue what they have done is patently offensive to a significant percentage of show attendees.
I don’t know because they have not weighed in on the conversation. (Hyper responded to the controversy in a January 14 blog post thanking the community for comments about their booth, both positive and negative. They stand by their creative vision for the display and have chosen to redirect the conversation to a larger conversation about online advocacy and accountability.)
You could be cynical and say Hyper’s effort was brilliant. Rather than discussing self-parking cars and web enabled televisions and high powered tablets we are discussing Hyper, a company whose presence to most attendees would otherwise be lost in the clutter of CES.
Additionally, the company website is a direct reflection of what was in the booth. The video on the landing page is far more provocative than what we saw on the floor in Las Vegas. It is clear their message is intentional and the female body is part of that strategy. Their branding is consistent, and ultimately the wisdom of the crowd and Hyper’s resultant cash flow will determine the campaign’s success or failure.
Personally I loathe “Booth Babes” at trade shows. Mashable’s Chris Taylor describes them accurately as, “Women chosen for their looks paid to hang around a company’s booth and attract the mostly male, mostly older attendees.” They don’t add value for me and I am always uncomfortable around them. They are ornamentation that gets in the way of me doing my job. They rarely know anything about the product and can’t direct me to someone who can help. I would love for them to go away. Not because I find the overt sexuality offensive, but because they become one more obstacle to get past on a crowded show floor.
The four women dressed in body paint and little else were supposed to be living sculptures. They were expected to look straight ahead with bored expressions, and were not supposed to interact with attendees. I think my lack of outrage stems from the moment captured in the photo of me in the booth. If you look closely, the woman behind me is sticking out her tongue. To me her expression says, “yah, I know this is absurd, can you believe this is my job?” It also says to me this is a woman who has power in the situation. Who sees it all as a bit of a joke. Who is not just passively standing there. Who probably thinks I am a dork.
I think when it is all said and done, I don’t care that Hyper chose to attract attention this way. It is sophomoric and predicated on getting the eyes and attention of their largely male client base. While it is crass and absurd I think it was that way by design. The theatricality of it all was certainly why I took the photo and immediately sent to my wife with a, “can you believe this?” message attached.
Hyper’s tactic is not a marketing ploy I would participate in, but perhaps I already have. Just by advancing this conversation and mentioning them by name they have one more brick of publicity in building their marketing foundation. Maybe we’ve all been played.
© 2013 StoryGuide | Drew Keller