Banning E3 booth babes isn’t good manners, it’s good business
The first thing I saw at E3 this year was a group of scantily clad ladies giving out energy drinks in front of the Los Angeles convention center. There was another group of female models posing for pictures upon entering the building, and to the right was another pod of “booth babes” giving away T-shirts. Going up the escalators I was greeted by yet another leather-clad group of women pitching a war game. The amount of female flesh on display before you even enter the show floor was impressive, and impossible to miss. The message it sends is clear: This is a show for men, with advertising, promotions, and booth design aimed at grabbing male eyes. In a time when console makers and major publishers are struggling to connect products with gamers, this is a dangerously short sighted marketing strategy. The issue of booth babes isn't about being sensitive, it's about selling to the actual video game market, and not the perceived reality of an all male audience. Video games are a diverse art form, and it's time for our most important show to reflect that truth.
Why this is a problem
The Entertainment Software Association’s own data shows how large the female audience has become. “Forty-seven percent of all players are women, and women over 18 years of age are one of the industry's fastest growing demographics,” the group’s 2012 report stated. “Today, adult women represent a greater portion of the game-playing population (30 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent).” Of course, you wouldn’t know this from walking the show floor at E3. The ESA is, unsurprisingly, unwilling to give more than a standard response to the issue of promotional models. “Exhibitors determine for themselves what is the best representation for their companies,” Dan Hewitt, Vice President of Media Relations and Event Management, Entertainment Software Association, told me. “Models are welcome if companies would like to have them, but that's an individual exhibitor decision.” The problem is that booth babes have become a pervasive part of the show, and that's an issue for an industry that hopes to attract a mainstream audience. “E3 and other trade shows featuring half-naked booth babes, who know nothing about the games they're promoting, do a disservice to the entire industry,” Tami Baribeau, the Editor in Chief of The Border House, told the Penny Arcade Report. “They reinforce the fact that games are marketed and predominantly designed for a demographic that excludes us. With every direction we look, from box cover art, to character design, to professional trade shows, to narrative, to costumes and equipment, to the game industry's wage gap, it becomes more and more clear that we're not ‘supposed’ to be enjoying games and they're not for us.” It's not a question of whether this approach is alienating for the many women in the industry, it's a question of how much damage is being done. “I dread heading off to work at E3 today, the show is a constant assault on the female self esteem no matter which direction I look,” game designer Brenda Garno Brathwaite said on Twitter. “I feel uncomfortable. It’s as if I walked into a strip club without intending to.” She’s not alone, other women I spoke to at the show, whether they be press or industry professionals, complained about the pro-male environment and reliance on sex appeal to sell products. The problem goes even deeper: Women who speak up about the male-centered marketing focus of the show became targets for hateful language and verbal attacks via social media. Critic Anita Sarkeesian, who is working on a video series dealing with the representation of women in video games, has been threatened with both beatings and rape. The message may be implicit when it comes from the industry, but it's explicit when it comes from many gamers: Women aren’t welcome, and they need to shut up about it. Leaving the blatant sexism that comes from both the publishers of games and many of the people who play them, this is simply bad business. “So it turns out if you want to find out what the future looks like, you should be asking women,” Intel researcher Genevieve Bell stated in a recent presentation about women’s role in the adoption of new technology. “And just before you think that means you should be asking 18-year-old women, it actually turns out the majority of technology users are women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. So if you wanted to know what the future looks like, those turn out to be the heaviest users of the most successful and most popular technologies on the planet as we speak.” There is very real money to be made marketing technology to women, or at the very least creating an environment where women feel like they can be part of the discussion. Consider that the high level of consumer adoption of technology by women happens despite the fact that trade show are usually designed by men for an aggressively male audience. In fact, E3 isn't the only show to struggle with the changing reality of the market. CES has long pandered to a male audience, despite the huge female market for emerging technologies. “It’s confusing, because it’s sending this message of what my sex is here to do, and obviously I don’t feel that way, because I’d rather be learning about the products,” Molly McHugh, a technology writer for Digital Trends, stated in a piece about booth babes at the show. The use of models at trade shows is rapidly becoming an anachronism, but the culture of marketing only to a male audience has proven hard to shake. “Booth babes emerged back in the 1950′s, when they were probably the only women on the convention floor, but this is no longer the case. Booth babes alienate and offend female conference attendees. Not to mention that many booth babes promote companies that have female employees standing in the booth, just a few feet away,” marketing manager Rikki Rogers wrote in a blog post on the subject. “Professional, successful employees with all of their clothes on. Booth babes send a message to your female colleagues that women ought to look pretty and alluring, not educated, ambitious, or—gasp!–actually capable of selling a product based on its virtues alone.” CEA President Gary Shapiro tried to sweep the problem under the table, in probably the most condescending way possible during an interview with the BBC. “Sometimes it is a little old school, but it does work,” he said about the use of booth babes are the show. “People want to go towards what they consider pretty. So your effort to try to get a story based on booth babes, which is decreasing rather rapidly in the industry… it’s cute, but it’s frankly irrelevant in my view.” Let’s be frank, Gary Shapiro is full of shit, and the Entertainment Software Association’s statement above isn't much better. The ESA is a trade group tasked with keeping the video game industry healthy and growing. By not taking a stand on this issue, the ESA is helping to promote the idea that gaming is something that is for young men, and that attitude stunts the growth of gaming as a whole. “Games should speak for themselves—they have rich stories, bleeding edge graphics, impactful sounds and music, and exciting presentation,” Baribeau said. “I'm embarrassed to work in the game industry when I see the media coverage of E3; it looks like a giant spectacle more akin to a strip club than a celebration of an interactive form of entertainment. I imagine a film festival and think about how they exist to appreciate the art form of movies, not strip their leading ladies down to their underwear to prance around advertising the movies.”
How to market based on your product, and not sex
Booth babes may get the attention of the crowd, but this happens at the possible expense of attracting a larger, wider audience to that game or product. I spoke with Stephanie Schopp, a PR executive who is a veteran of video game trade and consumer shows. She admits that pretty models will get people to pick up promotional materials, but it could be much more advisable to feature models of both genders promoting the game itself. “It should be related to your brand,” she said, although she did point out that many female characters on the cover of games are scantily clad. In her experience, sex works on some levels but there are better, more effective ways to get the attention of the crowd. “If you had, for example, an Assassin's Creed character in your booth, I think he'd get as much attention, or photographs, as females.” The trick is to create an outfit or costume that is related to the brand, and gives people something to get excited about. “There will always be people taking pictures with the pretty women, but if you had a man in a badass outfit you’ll see the same reaction,” she explained. “You see that more at Comic Con, the male characters, such as the Thors, Hulks, and the Batmans. When the guys do it well, they get a crowd. I've seen guys not being able to walk the floor at Comic Con.” Using male and female models dressed up like the characters in the game promotes the brand better than simply using sex appeal, and that approach is fun and inviting for both male and female press and industry professionals. It will make your booth more approachable and welcoming for a wider demographic, which is good business. There was a Family Guy display near one of the halls at E3, proudly brought to you by IGN, where the presenter barked sexual comments at women as they passed by. It’s just another way the industry tries to send a message that any woman at the show is there because of her body or looks, not because she likes video games. There are hundreds of wonderful games by creative people, aimed at every demographic, that are shown inside the show, and it's time to stop pretending E3 is a club house for pubescent boys. Gaming is an inviting art form, and it deserves a show that makes all gamers feel welcome and valued.