"Booth babes": They date back to the beginning of the Consumer Electronics Show, they've been the subject of controversy and nerd fantasy alike, and — who knows? — this week in Las Vegas might just be the last of them. Back at the inaugural tech convention in New York in 1967, they were called "CES Guides," according to The Verge's look at the Consumer Electronics Association photo archive, but they were still paid to do what they do now: be beautiful, and stand next to shiny new things. Even as companies continue to draw in an overwhelmingly male audience with semi-appropriately dressed young men, the plight of the spokesmodel has been at turns pretentious and contentious, with many critics going so far as to call for the end of the booth babe. On the occasion of the beginning of this year's show, here's a look into the evolution of one of the most definitive and provocative traditions of CES:
The '60s and '70s: In Which "Booth Babe" Enters the Lexicon
When, exactly, the common parlance for spokesmodeling switched from the politically correct "CES guide" to the more demeaning "booth babe" remains unclear. But in the 1969 book Trade Shows and Exhibits Donald Goodale Stewart describes the phenomenon of hiring "young ladies" to hand out literature at all sorts of trade shows — not just this new technological fair. He writes: "Young ladies have, for many exhibitors, become the answer to handling literature requests, inquiries, and telephones."
Somewhere between the beginning and '80s, though, the "young ladies" had turned into full-on babes. The first use of the term "booth babe" that we could find popped up in a June 1986 Toronto Star article under the headline "Run-free Nylons," detailing a "quick stop" at the Summer CES show (a second, mid-year convention ran until 1995): "As for the rest of the show, the quality of the products was inversely proportional to the chest size of the booth babes handing out the literature," wrote Jonathan Gross. He tosses off the phrase enough to suggest that by 1986 "booth babes" had cemented itself into the lexicon. Or maybe Gross coined it. (We also found the term "demo dolly" as another, less common phrase.) Either way, women were standing by, handing out pamphlets en masse almost from the beginning, and in perpetuity by the time CES was a decade old.
The '70s and '80s: In Which Scantily Clad Becomes the Norm
And then they took their clothes off. The evolution of the booth babe is largely a stripping down of wardrobes, and not just at CES. Above is a photo, via Curbside Classic's Paul Niedermeyer, from the 1965 Earl's Court Show — a modest outfit, to be sure, but already the revealing cleavage was there. The auto industry may have led the outfitting trends as it super-sexualized car shows at the dawn of the '70s — by 1971 women were already crawling on hoods. (Head back to Curbside Classic for the NSFW pictures.) Meanwhile, at CES, the official convention employees were still covered up in 1979...
(photo courtesy of CEA)
...but it's not clear these women were working the booths themselves. By the dawn of the '90s, Network World called the "sexy" array of women "predictable."
The '90s: In Which the Backlash Begins
As the dot-com bubble prepared to explode, Network World wrote a few separate times that it was flat-out tired of booth babes — not because of the sexism so much as the predictability. Not to mention the lack of knowledge about the actual products from the spokesmodels, "most of whom wouldn't know an ATM module if it bit them on their overexposed games," wrote Network World's Dave Breuger. The magazine's readers called booth babes "clueless," and then called for their extinction: "dump the booth babes. If we see just a pretty face handing out trinkets, we will take the trinket and keep walking." It was not yet the year 2000, and already CES booth babes had become passé.
(Photo via Associated Press)
As attitudes toward spokesmodeling changed, so, too, did the role of women hired for technology conventions. At the 1998 E3 video-game conference, Salon's Moira Muldoon described the booth babes as useful helpers, not just eye candy:
Even the phenomenon of "booth babes" (or "booth bimbos," if you're feeling more expressive) is experiencing some subtle shifts. As recently as last year, scantily clad women wandered the show floor, drawing attention to certain games by what they weren't wearing. And while you could hardly say there were fewer half-naked women at this year's E3, they seemed to spend more time in their booths than wandering the floor.
By CES 1999, attendees described the "actually cool products" as the true attention-grabbers, and not just the near-nude women, according to The San Francisco Chronicle's Carolyn Said.
The '00s: In Which Backlash Becomes Controversy
Change didn't come until 2006, when E3 responded to public outcries of sexism and said it would start enforcing long-existing rules of what spokesmodels could wear on the convention floor: "Nudity, partial nudity, and bathing-suit bottoms that were once seen as almost standard booth-babe attire will now land an exhibitor in hot water." The video-game show's organizers threatened to fine any company whose booth employees didn't adhere to the rules. Other cries of sexism led tech journalists to wonder whether we were approaching "the end of booth babe culture," but there were still bikinis at CES.
2011-2012: In Which the Babes Survive
Although some claim that the era of the full-on booth babe has waned, scantily clad spokesmodels are still a fixture every January at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Business Insider's Steve Kovach claimed last year that booth babes were "tucked away at all the smaller booths." But the 2011 photo below (via Reuters) shows some models holding up digital cameras made by Nikon, which isn't exactly a tiny company.
And when the booth babes didn't go away, neither did the controversy. "As a woman who writes about technology, I find booth babes insulting, embarrassing and anachronistic," wrote Wired's Olivia Salon in a column titled "It's Time to Ditch the Booth Babes." One convention, the Eurogamer Expo, has banned the hiring practice with a new no-booth-babes policy. And while CES hasn't expressed any outright change in its policy, this year's show is just beginning, and as the temporary workers come into the convention center, maybe we'll see things toned down even more than last year. Or maybe not. The babes are still out there, even if some preliminary photos show a more covered-up micro-trend. We'll keep you as updated as we can stand to browse for photos of cheesy women in Las Vegas.