A year ago, two blondes in skintight silver mini dresses and stiletto heels were stationed at Ssangyong Motor Co.’s display at the Geneva car show.
When the annual event reopens Tuesday, the South Korean manufacturer’s “booth babes” -- as they are known in the industry -- will be gone, replaced by male and female models dressed in sportswear to promote its line up of pick-ups and cars.
Ssangyong isn’t alone in bowing to pressure from the global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. Larger automakers including Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. have also said they will cut back on the coquetry in Geneva, marking a potential sea change for an industry that has long pandered to male customers by using attractive women to sell cars.
“Times have changed,” said Sara Jenkins, a Switzerland-based spokeswoman for Nissan, which stopped hiring fashion models for shows last year. “It makes more sense to use product specialists because we’re selling cars.”
Little black dresses
Lexus, the luxury brand of the world’s second-biggest carmaker, Toyota, confirmed it’s dropping models altogether at the Swiss event, while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is said to have canceled contracts with several female models over concern about being criticized on #MeToo. The maker of the Maserati, Jeep and Alfa Romeo nameplates will instead feature men as well as women in less flesh-exposing garb than in previous years, two people with knowledge of the plans said.
This is in sharp contrast with 2017, when Alfa Romeo’s display had women in little black dresses hovering around its Stelvio crossover. Nearby, a brunette with a beehive hairdo and a bottom-grazing sixties-style dress kicked up her red heels next to a Fiat 500. At Lexus, a woman in an off-the-shoulder burgundy gown was stationed beside one of its sedans.
A spokeswoman for the show said exhibitors are free to choose how they want to present their vehicles. Some may not change tack. That’ll give scope for women to turn to secret signals used in past years, such as tucking hair behind their ears, to get help in fending off overly-eager patrons. The practice was described by one show worker who won’t be in Geneva this year.
The transformation by the biggest players shows the ripple effect the #MeToo movement is having on industries far from its Hollywood roots. The growing backlash has also prompted several European sports events to ditch hostesses working on the sidelines of male-dominated competitions. Formula One in February said it was dropping the hiring of “grid girls,” branding the women in skimpy clothes at odds with modern society.
In the auto industry, the changing customer base is also feeding the trend. The number of women owning cars in the U.K. jumped 66 percent in the decade through 2016, official figures show, almost triple the rise in for men. In Germany, Europe’s biggest car market, women buy about a third of all new vehicles and in France 37 percent.
Eliminating women as display props isn’t new for some carmakers like Peugeot maker PSA Group. “Visitors to the Geneva auto show will be welcomed on the PSA booth by male and female hosts whose mission will be to inform them,” spokesman Pierre-Oliver Salmon said in an email with a #nocarbabes hashtag attached. “PSA Group won’t convey a degrading image of anyone, neither of women or men.”
Peugeot’s rival Renault SA also says it has banned models for years in Europe preferring “car explainers,” whose appearance didn’t matter as long as they were tall enough to be noticed, a spokeswoman for the company said.
Even Pirelli & C. Spa, the Italian tiremaker famed for its sexy calendars, has modified its approach. Its 2018 stand will have models in black pant suits during press days, rather than the skimpy dresses of 2016, a spokeswoman said. Lamborghini, the sports car brand owned by Volkswagen AG, said it quit draping women around its Huracans about two years ago and is busy training male and female hosts to explain the vehicle’s features at this year’s Geneva event.