Last year, I was at Milwaukee’s annual Pridefest celebration with some friends of mine and we happened to spot a very large bunker of sorts, provided by the good people at the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company. The bunker was large, metallic, and blue and had labels all over it that identified it as being “the Camel experience.” There were two gentlemen outside that would ask you for your I.D before you went inside, so they could make sure that you were of age to buy cigarettes and then once inside you were immediately greeted by a bevy of scantily clad women and one smart dressed man. I had seen several of these girls throughout Milwaukee in various places, so I knew this wasn’t their full time job. This was just a temporary gig of sorts. The women then proceeded to educate us on the various lines of Camel cigarettes that are out there and said that if we were willing to hear more and watch a brief interactive movie in the back that we would receive four free packs of cigarettes.
Needless to say the lesbians ate that shit up.
Whoever was behind the Camel experience knew their audience well. They knew that if they strategically placed several scantily clad women in a tight, air conditioned space that people who are inclined to find these women attractive may just go along with whatever these women had to offer. It didn’t matter if the lesbians knew they didn’t actually have a shot with these girls. They were buying into the illusion. They were taking the bait. And so streams of women were placing their I.D.s in this electronic reader, where they would answer several survey questions and would again verify their true age, and within minutes they were seated at a bar type area and choosing which packs of Camel cigarettes or tobacco they wanted to take home with them.
It all felt very wrong to me. I wanted to walk up to them and shake them and say “Don’t you see what’s happening here?” But I didn’t, mostly because I knew that they wouldn’t be able to see through this clever marketing tactic that was seemingly all around us and similar tactics that we see used everyday to get us to buy any number of products on the market. The Camel Experience had went exactly as planned.
I was reminded of this story or this experience while reading an article over at the Border House Blog, in which the author talks about how it might be time for gaming conferences to give up the well known practice of hiring “booth babes” or scantily clad women to help them shill their products. The author supports her case by including several comments or Tweets made by a female gaming industry veteran who admitted that she dreaded attending the recent E3 conference because she felt so intimidated or uncomfortable being around these types of women or this type of a marketing ploy.
Personally, I struggle with the idea of the “booth babe” for several reasons.
On the one hand, I think the practice of using sexuality or specifically women’s sexuality or their bodies to inspire men or women who enjoy other women to buy a product is really played out and almost too easy. I think it’s almost insulting to those people that companies think that’s all it will take for them to buy their product. They know they don’t have to go out of their way to film a commercial in a really scenic location or that they won’t have to put too much thought into a billboard that you see on the street. All a company has to do is throw a half dressed woman at them and call it a day. I find it interesting when I see people who are so clearly taken in by this approach and they just can’t see it with their own eyes. So just because this tactic works and just because it’s something that most people don’t catch on to doesn’t necessarily make it okay. It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the only route you need to take to get your point across.
On the other hand, it works. It’s a proven fact that sex sells. Where do we draw the line between corporate responsibility and personal responsibility?
Just as a multi-million dollar corporation has the right to throw attractive, oiled up bodies at you, you also have the right to say “No, thanks.” You have the right to take your business elsewhere or to criticize them for how they do things. But nobody is making you buy their product. The pull of advertising can be strong and Lord knows I have fallen victim to that late night McDonald’s commercial that inspired me to swing through a drive through at two in the morning for a large order of fries and a Coke. But McDonald’s didn’t *make* me do that. Nobody crawled out of the television set, like the little girl from “The Ring” and forced me to go buy those items. I did it myself. I can shake my fist in the air and curse McDonald’s for making their fries look so tasty in that commercial or for airing that commercial just as I was about to go to bed. But ultimately I did it. It was my choice.
So you can’t blame a company for wanting to use a strategy that they know is going to work. They know that nobody is going to recognize what’s really happening here. They know it’s a sure fire way to get people’s attention and to bring in revenue. If people continue to fall for, or to be engaged by what the companies put out there of course they are going to keep doing it. It’s no different than considering leaving the job that you have been at for years, that you know you’re good at it, and that you know will earn you a decent living for a job in a field that you have little or no experience in and that *could* make you the same amount of money or more. It’s a gamble and one that not everybody or every company is willing to take. Again I ask, “Can you blame them?”
To steer things back to where Border House was coming from, there is also the issue of how the concept of the “booth babe” affects women.
It’s hard enough making yourself feel like you are truly welcome in the gaming world as a woman. You have to deal with so many initial barriers right out of the gate. If you do manage to overcome those things and convince yourself that you do belong, you then have to deal with seeing women who most likely do not represent you being thrust into your face as an ideal or as something that you need to aspire to be. You see those same guys who crack jokes about women not playing video games or that women shouldn’t play video games fawning over these “booth babes” rather openly and unabashedly. You seem them responding positively to this exaggerated image of what a woman should look like or how a woman should behave, all the while chastising other women for supposedly using their bodies or their wiles to get ahead in the same industry. If you were to show up at a conference wearing the same outfit, ready to play your game of choice you would most likely be laughed or shamed out of the building. But because they’re doing it it’s okay. How does that work, exactly?
So the double standard bothers me. Male gamers tend to want women to be good at the games they play. They don’t want to see us flirting or being stereotypically feminine to get ahead. They don’t want to see us lording our gender over them or having to constantly remind people that we are in fact women. Isn’t that exactly what the “booth babes” do? These are women who presumably have no interest in gaming and who I would bet have never even touched the products that they are trying to sell to you. They are using compliments, acting coy, and being overly flirtatious to get you in the mood to listen to what they have to say, so they can then launch into their product pitch and hopefully make a sale. They are wearing clothing that they know will most certainly draw attention to their bodies or other feminine attributes so that they can not only get your attention, but keep it, too. All of those things they shame their female peers for doing or for allegedly doing are suddenly okay when they are done by a “booth babe.”
Now here is where things get a little tangled for me.
I’m all about sexual expression and sexual freedom. I think there is nothing wrong with a woman or a man being proud of their body and wanting to show it off. I don’t have a problem with nudity or even pornography, for that matter. Yet here I am, criticizing these women for what they are wearing and then using it against them. How am I helping matters any? If the shoe was on the other foot and the gaming companies who hired these women told them that they couldn’t wear anything remotely feminine and that they had to sort of stifle that I would probably be angry about that. I would probably then be crusading for a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants to and that these companies should be ashamed of themselves for forcing women to hide their bodies or to cover them up.
I’m automatically assuming that these women don’t play the games they are advertising because of how they are dressed or how they are behaving. But how *does* a female gamer look? How is she *supposed* to behave? Who is to say that you can’t be great at what you do and then party on the weekends? Who says you can’t attend a Magic the Gathering event in a hoodie and jeans and then head to the club later in a short skirt and some stilettos? Why does one necessarily have to lead to the other? Why do we assume that if a woman is flirtatious that she is doing it in a very empty fashion or that she is doing it solely to get something out of someone? Maybe she just likes to flirt. Maybe she truly enjoys wearing skimpy outfits. Maybe that’s just *who she is.*
Who are we to tell her that it’s wrong, or that she has to dress or behave the way that *we* think she should? There are a lot of assumptions that people tend to make when they see a “booth babe,” versus the assumptions that someone would make when they see your average female gamer on the street. I’m not trying to say that the assumptions that one faces are necessarily worse than the other, but I would say that they are about equal. They can be equally harmful.
I’m really glad that I stumbled upon that article at the Border House, because I really feel that it was well written and that it left the floor open for people to have a healthy discussion about this issue and the many angles that we could look at this from. It really got me thinking and gave me that shot of inspiration that I have been lacking lately. I’m fairly certain that not everybody is going to agree with the points and counterpoints that I have laid out here, but hopefully I have brought a new perspective to the table and maybe some great conversation can be had here about this topic.
Thanks for listening.