By Cynthia Cabrera
Recently I watched a program on CNN called “The Seventies,” a retrospective series on the pivotal decade that saw women’s rights come to the forefront, the fight for gay rights take off, the move toward consumer product safety and the rise of television, among other pivotal events.
The segment opened with an interview involving Hugh Hefner and two women’s liberation advocates. I remember sighing with relief that women today are well empowered to be themselves with far less objectification than these women faced in the ‘70s. Then one of the women told Hugh Hefner that he should let them know the “day he has to parade around with a bunny tail stuck to his rear end” and I flashed back to the most recent “vape event” I had attended and realized that I was so, so wrong.
At that event, a male business owner commented that for two shows in a row he had been stuck next to the same competitor who showcased a 20-something “booth babe” in butt-cheek revealing shorty shorts. His complaints? That she was always wiggling her butt in his direction, and that for a 20-something; she had an unforgivably saggy butt.
Yeah … we still have a way to go.
NACS was the first trade show where SFATA ever exhibited. The then-president of the organization insisted there be “models” in the booth. Never mind that they could not intelligently explain what the federal and regulatory issues that SFATA hoped to address were—the point was to pull people (read = men) into the booth with the lure of hot chicks in tight fitting SFATA dresses. The show was a bust, but the ladies to got to keep their dresses. Since taking the reins I’ve never felt the need to stock the booth with scant-
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ily clad models, but I recognize that sex sells.
The question then for this industry—facing more regulatory challenges and hurdles than probably any other in the country—is how important is sex to spreading the message about the potential of vapor products to change the landscape of health? The answer depends on whether that is actually the goal; the assumption that a “trade show” requires hot chicks for business-to-business transactions to take place is questionable.
Spenser Chen of Frontback conducted real-time tests during the famed CES show in Las Vegas to determine if booth babes brought more business to the company than a booth with older, experienced contractors, who were dressed for business. The results? They were great. The booth that was staffed with the booth babes generated a third of the foot traffic (as measured by conversations or demos) and less than half the leads (as measured by a badge swipe or a completed contact form) while the other (non boothbabe) team had a consistently packed booth that ultimately generated over 550 leads, more than triple from the previous year.
Similarly a consumer show where the goal is to attract new customers by providing samples handed out by showgirl look-alikes misses the fact that 60 percent of vapers are women and 15.3 percent of women (vs. 20 percent of men) smoke cigarettes. Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, noted that “Tens of millions of female smokers and smokers over 40 may require different marketing strategies to reach.”
But, if a vape event is just a big carnival where part of the entertainment is people watching, then there is indeed a place for all those booth babes … ahem … models.
Although more egregious in its objectification of women, the vapor industry isn’t the only one questioning this strategy. A 2013 Forbes.com article reported: “For better or worse, ‘booth babes’ is an industry term to describe women paid, as former Eurogamer.net writer Rab Florence noted, “to stand for hours in painful high heels and skimpy clothes by a corporate body operating under the dated notion that tech products can’t be sold without appealing to the worst elements of a perceived demographic.” Sound familiar?
But, I support the right for every woman to choose her own path in life, including becoming a booth model, so for me the issue is whether the image that the industry currently projects is the one that helps it the most. Is an industry really serious about providing the best possible quality
product to consumers, if all people remember is that there were pole dancers at the last show?
Colleagues told me they could not focus on an article I had written for this magazine because it was right next to an ad with half naked women. This same magazine recently warmed my heart because it featured a good looking stud on the cover, but I could not help noticing that unlike most of the women that have graced the cover of this publication, he was fully clothed. Is that a move toward good taste or just that the vapor industry is more comfortable with half naked women but not men?
Last November, both Julie Woessner (president of CASAA) and I were approached by a publication to be featured in a series about vapor advocates. We were told we had to wear some sort of gown or dress and that pictures with specific poses would be required. Huh? What does dressing up like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s have to do with securing a way for the vapor industry to survive the legislative and regulatory battles it faces? We declined to participate, but noted that the woman who did wore a lovely and sexy ball gown, while no men featured had to strike a pose and got to wear regular clothes.
Schell Hammel, owner of the Vapor Bar and inarguably an extremely successful vapor entrepreneur said, “This is definitely a male dominated industry, which is not unlike other industries. However, the use of sexual content and women in advertisements, booth displays, and things like body painting is degrading the industry as a whole, not just women. It makes us look like an immature, immoral industry trying to be hip but only fuels the fire of those who would like nothing more than to shut us down. Think Playboy or Hustler, add a mod and e-liquid and you have a typical vape convention.”
At the end of the day, who cares what drives smokers to the vapor alternative as long as they successfully switch over? The questions business owners should consider when they make decisions about how to bring attention to themselves are:
There are many things we in the vapor industry cannot control but when we have been regulated and legislated beyond any conceivable expectations, let’s hope we don’t look back and regret that this was one of the things we had a chance to get right.
Cynthia Cabrera is executive director of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association; the leading and largest trade association dedicated to the education, promotion and continued innovation of vapor products.