Somewhere between the beginning and '80s, though, the "young ladies" had turned into full-on babes. The first use of the term "booth babe" that we could find popped up in a June 1986 Toronto Star article under the headline "Run-free Nylons," detailing a "quick stop" at the Summer CES show (a second, mid-year convention ran until 1995): "As for the rest of the show, the quality of the products was inversely proportional to the chest size of the booth babes handing out the literature," wrote Jonathan Gross. He tosses off the phrase enough to suggest that by 1986 "booth babes" had cemented itself into the lexicon. Or maybe Gross coined it. (We also found the term "demo dolly" as another, less common phrase.) Either way, women were standing by, handing out pamphlets en masse almost from the beginning, and in perpetuity by the time CES was a decade old.
The '70s and '80s: In Which Scantily Clad Becomes the Norm
And then they took their clothes off. The evolution of the booth babe is largely a stripping down of wardrobes, and not just at CES. Above is a photo, via Curbside Classic's Paul Niedermeyer, from the 1965 Earl's Court Show — a modest outfit, to be sure, but already the revealing cleavage was there. The auto industry may have led the outfitting trends as it super-sexualized car shows at the dawn of the '70s — by 1971 women were already crawling on hoods. (Head back to Curbside Classic for the NSFW pictures.) Meanwhile, at CES, the official convention employees were still covered up in 1979...
(photo courtesy of CEA)
...but it's not clear these women were working the booths themselves. By the dawn of the '90s, Network World called the "sexy" array of women "predictable."
The '90s: In Which the Backlash Begins
As the dot-com bubble prepared to explode, Network World wrote a few separate times that it was flat-out tired of booth babes — not because of the sexism so much as the predictability. Not to mention the lack of knowledge about the actual products from the spokesmodels, "most of whom wouldn't know an ATM module if it bit them on their overexposed games," wrote Network World's Dave Breuger. The magazine's readers called booth babes "clueless," and then called for their extinction: "dump the booth babes. If we see just a pretty face handing out trinkets, we will take the trinket and keep walking." It was not yet the year 2000, and already CES booth babes had become passé.
(Photo via Associated Press)
As attitudes toward spokesmodeling changed, so, too, did the role of women hired for technology conventions. At the 1998 E3 video-game conference, Salon's Moira Muldoon described the booth babes as useful helpers, not just eye candy:
Even the phenomenon of "booth babes" (or "booth bimbos," if you're feeling more expressive) is experiencing some subtle shifts. As recently as last year, scantily clad women wandered the show floor, drawing attention to certain games by what they weren't wearing. And while you could hardly say there were fewer half-naked women at this year's E3, they seemed to spend more time in their booths than wandering the floor.
By CES 1999, attendees described the "actually cool products" as the true attention-grabbers, and not just the near-nude women, according to The San Francisco Chronicle's Carolyn Said.