Does Sex Sell? On Appropriate Demo Material

I’m not doing much in terms of post-InfoComm wrap-up this year; like some of you, I watched from afar. There might be something to say about that process and how it developed over the years, especially with new tools like Periscope available for live-streaming of booth-tours and even parties. Today I’d like to revisit the depressingly common theme of casual sexism in the tech industry and why we all need to grow up a little bit.

If one is displaying a video product, one needs to think carefully about what test media to use. It need to be the right format. It needs to have a wide enough range of colors to highlight the display technology. Video streaming products need to have enough motion to prove that they can handle it without too many distracting artifacts. And, in something which should go without saying but sadly doesn’t, the material needs to be appropriate for the situation and the audience. When we are at a business event — and trade shows, demo facilities, and showrooms ARE business settings — we need to conduct ourselves in a businesslike manner. If you want to be taken seriously, this is not the time to try to attract the (straight) male gaze with “sexy” content.

leonard-suskin-0615I discussed this very issue with a video transport manufacturer two years ago; in that case I expressed discomfort to the national sales manager manning the booth and was answered with a shrug, a smirk and an “I like it.” That is what I remembered. This year the only impression I got of the ClearOne booth was this photograph, semi-anonymously shared with me. Yes, ClearOne chose to demo their network streaming solution with a loop of a lingerie show.

Why do I have an issue with this kind of media? First, and most obviously, is the point that it is demeaning to women. It sends a message to the female clients, contractors, consultants and other professionals that they are in a “boys club” with a culture that sees women as decoration. It doesn’t tell women “keep out,” but it reminds them that they are in a place where they are seen to not belong. Enough of that kind of message and they’ll feel that they don’t belong; ClearOne (and others who use this strategy) certainly aren’t trying to talk to them.

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Secondly, and equally important, it sends a message about their judgement. If I can’t trust you to not display a six-foot tall image of a woman’s derriere at a tradeshow, then why should I specify your product and risk having to expose contractors, clients, or other subcontractors to you and your team? What confidence can I have that the careless attitude about subtexts is not part of a corporate culture? One factor at which I look when specifying equipment is support; does a manufacturer have track record of standing behind their product, would they bring a team to site if needed, and would that team act like professional adults? The choice to screen a lingerie show on ones demo wall gives me zero confidence, especially non the last point.

AV systems once relied more on physical media than they do today; when I worked for AV integration firms I’d sometimes have to provide media for testing. I remember grabbing a VHS tape from my personal collection when the office’s stock of “official” media was elsewhere and apologizing for the choice: Barney the Dinosaur. The tech on site laughed and said that he always used Thomas the Train Engine. Why? Because it was as aggressively harmless and inoffensive as media can be. No risk of salty language, no risk of anything suggestive or otherwise inappropriate, just video content mild enough for a toddler. I’m not saying that demo media need to be all purple dinosaurs and anthropomorphic trains. I AM saying that we need to be mindful of our potential audience, of the messages we might be sending.

Let your product speak for itself. Next time you arrange a demo, do so in such a way that it is brought to my attention for the quality of your product and your work, not for your poor judgement.