Model ban highlights need for decency at trade shows
By Doug Young
MANY car fans in Shanghai may be bracing for a shock next week, as the biannual Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition gets set to hold its first-ever edition without skimpily clad models draping themselves over cars and prancing around the stages.
Of course I’m being just slightly sarcastic in saying car buffs may be disappointed, since most of these people probably go to the show to see the automobiles and other latest accessories and gadgets on display.
Instead, the highly discussed decision to ban the usual sexy models from this year’s event could disappoint some of the many mainstream consumers who might secretly come more to watch people than cars.
Some might argue the decision seems overbearing and a bit of a killjoy. But the reality is it should bring a much-needed degree of respect to Chinese trade shows that are sometimes ridiculed by foreigners for their circus-like atmosphere.
For that reason I’m commending Shanghai for this controversial move, which should be part of a broader drive to create better living and work environments where things like sexual harassment and other unprofessional and inappropriate behaviors are discouraged.
Many such behaviors were relatively common many years ago in the US, but have largely disappeared in the last few decades.
The banning of scantily clad models at the Shanghai Auto Show first burst into the headlines in January when the move was first announced.
It faded after a week or two of heated debate, but has come back again with the actual approach of the show that runs all of next week.
The ban is highly symbolic since the show is arguably China’s most famous trade event each year, attracting huge attention not only from domestic but also international visitors due to the country’s status as the world’s biggest car market.
Not surprisingly, most media and people surveyed have said they support the ban, and that people who attend trade shows should be going to see products instead of sexy models.
Perhaps those models do add a bit of liveliness and color to the presentation, but they also detract from the air of professionalism and sometimes make these shows feel more like a party than a serious industry event where major new products are often introduced and millions of dollars in business takes place.
As someone who has reported on China for much of the last three decades, I can say that the local trade show scene has undergone huge changes.
When I first came here in the 1980s, trade shows were still relatively rare in China, and the ones that did exist were very basic.
Between 1989 and 1991 while living in Hong Kong, I made several trips to nearby Guangzhou for the biannual Canton Fair, which at the time was easily China’s largest trade show, filling a huge exhibition hall.
Back then most of the exhibitors were manufacturers of goods ranging from machinery to handicrafts.
Booths were usually small and modest, staffed by two or three company representatives surrounded by a few of their products and perhaps some photos from their home factory.
Then in the early 1990s China discovered fashion shows, along with careers like modeling and products like makeup. While working as a guide bringing American tourists to China in 1992, one of my groups was treated to one of the earliest Chinese fashion shows that I can recall in the nearby city of Suzhou.
Most of us got a chuckle from the event, which featured a parade of innocent-looking young women awkwardly modeling the silk clothes that the city is famous for.
Things have come a long way since then, and at some point those on China’s mainland started copying the older Taiwanese practice of featuring copious female models at their trade shows.
By comparison, the trade shows I occasionally attend in the US and Europe have few such models, though they often still have the same bouncy music, hosts and stage presentations to inject some liveliness into the events.
Anyone who attempted to stage a model-filled display in the US would instantly draw criticism from feminist and professional groups, not to mention derision from many in the general public who would call such displays tacky and tasteless.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have shows featuring models in the US, but only when it’s applicable, such as for fashion and adult entertainment shows.
The Shanghai Auto Show is only open to media and industry professionals for most of next week anyhow, with the general public just allowed for the last couple of days.
I expect few if any reporters or industry professionals will decide to skip the show due to lack of dancing models, and may even welcome the quieter, more serious atmosphere.
More broadly, I also applaud the city for a highly symbolic and cutting-edge move that should help to take Shanghai into the 21st century.