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Booth Babes: Al Jolson, The Supreme Court, Self-Promotion And How Context Can Make All The Difference

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 22, 2013

The subject that just won’t die rolls on. We’ve run five pieces so far on the subject of “Booth Babes,” and the broader issue of PMA policy:

1) Pundit’s Mailbag — Booth Babes And The Disconnect With PMA’s Position On Women’s Careers

2) Pundit’s Mailbag — Nothing Wrong With Booth Babes!

3) Pundit’s Mailbag — “Booth Babes”, Professionalism and Hypocrisy: What Should PMA’s Policy Be?

4) Pundit’s Mailbag — United Fresh And Others Weigh In On Booth Babes

5) Pundit’s Mailbag — Booth Babes Issue Rolls On With Discourse About Beauty, PMA Exhibit Policy, Marketing Tactics And Proper Attire

Some commenters are those who have commented previously, as Deidre Smyrnos of CF Fresh did both here and much earlier here, but she has come back to take another swing:

I think that your comparison between "Booth Babes" and "Al Jolson Blackface" is an excellent analogy and makes for a very convincing argument! 

“But, in the end, today, most organizations wouldn’t allow the kind of fun things that offend people to go on. You wouldn’t let an exhibitor have an Al Jolson Blackface character at its booth, although that might have been perfectly acceptable at some point in time."

I sure look forward to PMA's response to this topic to which there has been much debate.

Deidre Smyrnos
Account Representative
CF Fresh, Inc.

Deidre is passionate on this issue. The question, however, is precisely what will “offend people,” and it is not easy to write out that definition in a way that PMA or anyone else could enforce. Even advocates of restrictions have written in exceptions for native dress, for example. Others seem more concerned with what the “booth babes” mentioned in the initial piece were signing than what they were wearing. It may well matter that the “Daisy Duke” dress was taken from a TV show, The Dukes of Hazzard, as, presumably, one can use excerpts from popular culture — plays, movies, music, TV etc., in a booth.

No show organizer would tolerate any exhibitor who was doing something that was widely viewed as offensive. But defining a standard is another thing entirely. PMA is not the first to struggle with such an issue. No less an august body than The Supreme Court of the United States struggled to define pornography with its decision in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). In one of the most famous lines from a Supreme Court decision, Justice Potter Steward wrote a concurrence that, famously, included this:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added.]

—Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.

Almost all show organizers have some line in their contracts requiring professional dress and conduct or, at least, acquiescence to the rules of the event which require the same. Beyond that, like Justice Potter, they ban offensive exhibitors when they seem offensive to the organizers or when they cause a lot of complaints.

Of course, Lorri Koster’s point, made both here and here, is that PMA should conduct itself to an especially high standard because it has decided to make one if its flagship values women’s professional development. This includes a new conference, the Women’s Fresh Perspectives event at Fresh Summit, and the Pack Family/PMA Career Pathways Scholarship program that brings in students both male and female. In this view the issue is not what is generally offensive, it is what is consistent with PMA’s pro-female executive positioning. She makes a pretty strong case.

Of course, others have different priorities. One frequent Pundit correspondent notes that one contributor to this thread, a man who contributed here, here and here, may be laughing all the way to the bank:

I am not condoning or weighing in on the “booth babes” debate. However, I wonder if the smartest guy in the room isn’t Majestic. After all, whoever hadn’t heard of Majestic before this debate surely knows the name now and that is a lot of free press.

Hope all is well on the east coast.

— Eric Schwartz, CEO
Patterson Vegetable Company, LLC
Patterson, California

Of course, during The New York Produce Show and Conference, the Pundit frequently heard the same joke as people approached us and inquired as to the presence of “booth babes” at the show. We never have very many, as our policy of restricting companies to one booth tends to keep the focus on business, and the New York milieu keeps things rather businesslike. In an age where many shows are a sea of golf shirts, standard attire at the New York event is still jacket and tie.

In fact, as best we could tell, there was only one “booth babe” at the show, a story captured by Pundit sister publication, PerishableNews.com, in a tongue-in-cheek story:

Lone Booth Babe Appears At New York Produce Show & Conference

Following recent scrutiny in the trade press, “booth babes” steered clear of this year's New York Produce Show and Conference.

To the disappointment of produce moguls who looked forward to mingling with young women dressed for an evening at a Manhattan dance club or a fantasy luau, female brand ambassadors were instead often indistinguishable from full-time salespeople.

In addition, hundreds of vendors were observed using beautiful signage, fresh samples, handshakes, and other conventional tactics to draw traffic, all of which may be worrisome for booth babes and their advocates.

Foxy Claus, the lone delegate from the old guard, appeared to have been in hiding at times. When she could be found at the Pretty Lady booth, businessmen giddily posed alongside her in photos that may soon be tokens from a bygone era. Miss Claus was later spotted hiding from this photographer and quietly leaving through a secondary exit.

The story brought a defense of at least this particular booth babe by a noted marketer and former booth babe who was involved in this marketing effort:

Just a note about our lovely booth babe "Foxy Clause" as you refer to her. Not only is she booth babealicious but she is extremely knowledgeable about the product she is representing. Our booth babes show you can be beautiful, sexy and smart all in one package. 

As a female and former booth babe, I think booth babes say a lot more about the gentlemen enjoying the visual (and I don't mean in a bad way), then they say about the confident (yes confident, it takes a lot of self-confidence to pull that off) women standing there in all sorts of variations of dress.

Thanks for the coverage on our booth babe!

—   Lori Hickey
Marketing Plus
Fresno, California

To us, this particular “booth babe” was brilliant and for precisely the reason that Lorri Koster and Dan’l Mackey Almy found the booth babes at PMA so inappropriate. They saw PMA as being inconsistent in its branding and so critiqued its decision to allow that behavior at its expo.

This “booth babe” was representing Pretty Lady grapes. She was sharp and knowledgeable, pleasant to be around, dressed in a tasteful Santa-themed dress and, most important of all; she was, in fact, a pretty lady representing Pretty Lady grapes.

It was a perfect alignment of positioning and execution, marketing genius.

There is a time and a place for everything. The challenge is to get them in sync.

Many thanks to Deidre Smyrnos, Eric Schwartz and Lori Hickey for weighing in on this controversy.

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