Booth babe debate is back, in time for summer cons!

Last year I caught a bit of grief from readers after I wrote a couple posts suggesting vendors who use booth babes should try attracting people based on the strength of its products instead. It was in reaction to the display McAfee set up during Black Hat USA 2011. Now, a few weeks before we all descend on Las Vegas for the next Black Hat, debate over the booth babe approach has been rekindled.

Normally I try not to jump on bandwagons, so to speak. But given the response I got last year I feel a bit of ownership on this issue. So back in I go...

Let's begin with the post that restarted the discussion -- a great read in the Idiosyncratic Routine blog written by New York-based infosec practitioner Amber Baldet called  "Ragequitting SummerCon," in which she wrote of the "burlesque thing" that flavored the recent SummerCon event in Brooklyn. That was followed by a good post from my friend Corum, who wrote, among other things: "If you stoop to the worst sort of booth babe at the front of your booth, I’ll think you have nothing real to offer behind them either.  That’s the business message I receive when your initial attempt to communicate involves marketing to my little head."

Now, friend and security assessor Michelle Klinger has weighed in with an excellent read about booth babes and the return on investment they may or may not provide. A snippet:

I challenge vendors who use booth babes to share their booth babe ROI! I’m not interested in lead generation, because it doesn’t take much effort to scan someone’s badge or get a business card.  I want to know, for the amount of money spent on booth babe talent, how much sales revenue is actually generated.  Prove to us naysayers, once and for all, that booth babes are a financially sound investment…..a revenue generating investment. I don’t want to hear about the failure of sales when leads don’t translate into revenue.  If that’s the case I’d argue you’d be better advised to invest in a better sales team than booth babes.  I’d even go so far and challenge vendors to provide an explanation on how using booth babes are more advantageous than staffing booths with knowledgeable engineers.

It's clear from the rest of her post that Michelle is skeptical of the return on investment. We all should be.

I'll repeat what I said last year: I've been to many security conferences where vendors felt the need to hire women to stand around their booth with their stuff hanging out. It may be entertaining, but it can speak poorly of the vendor. This is a tricky thing, because the booth babe tactic works. That's why vendors do it. People linger around the booth longer, pretending that they're looking at the fliers and the demos. I could tell you I've never done such a thing. But I would be telling a lie.It's not easy to turn away from a spectacle.I do think it's unfortunate, though. Women in security fight for the respect they deserve every day, and this stuff probably isn't very helpful to them. There's also some unfairness, because you never see the male booth babes. There's an argument to be had that a good spectacle should have some balance, so both sexes get something out of it. Or, you could argue that it would be better to just try attracting people to your booth on the strength of your products and reputation.

Some smart people disagree.

When I wrote about the McAfee Black Hat display, I took my hits:

"If this is "in poor taste", then why even come to Vegas at all? The women at my hotel are dressed the same way ... I personally think this whole topic is basically a distraction ... I mean, do you go to cons for vendor booths? Those women make good money and chose to dress that way. They aren't sad," tweeted @awilsong.

That's not an unreasonable point. And to me, this isn't about the women who take the job. They are free to make a living as they see fit, and if they are proud of their bodies and want to show them off, more power to them.

This is about the vendors and whether they have what it takes to attract people to a booth on the strength of their products or if they need to rely on flashy gimmicks.

As I walked the exhibit floor at RSA a few months ago, I noticed that the booth babe thing was toned down considerably. Instead, a lot of vendors decided to display race cars. Some might call this progress, but in the end, it's just another gimmick -- flash over substance.

And to me, that's what this whole debate is about.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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