"Do You Come With the Car?"

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 23, 2018

Well, here’s a turning point: According to the Huffington Post, “The Me Too movement and rise in awareness of sexual harassment has forced automobile executives to reconsider their use of ‘car girls’ [a/k/a spokesmodels] at auto shows.”

Spokesmodels at the 2006 U.S. Grand Prix preview party. (Ryosuke Yagi/Flickr)

The evidence? Formula One racing discontinued the use of “grid girls” at the start and finish lines, and both Toyota and Rolls-Royce say they will use “product specialists” (who could be either male or female) instead of mere pretty faces draped over their latest cars.

A glamorous spokesmodel at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show. (Guillaime P. Boppe/Flickr)

If this is true, perhaps it’s a sign of the automotive times as dramatic as the current on-rush of self-driving cars. Spokesmodels have been with us since the dawn of the auto show, which was concurrent with the dawn of the car itself—in around 1900.

Same as it ever was: Detroit Auto Show in 2016. (Jim Motavalli photo)

As the New York Times reported, “Beginning with the earliest shows, the models were eye candy, there to accentuate the cars and trucks on display. Not much else was required.” Not even clothes. Susan Shaw and Helen Jones adorned the TVR stand at the 1971 British Motor Show totally nude.

To be sure, the spokesmodel has evolved. Today, there are men on many stands, and most of the women don’t just pose—they also can answer questions about cars on the stands. This is made clear by Rochester, New York-based TSM Agency, which claims to be the number one source of trade show models.

Car shows are extremely popular. Why are they so popular? The answer is cars and more cars. Sure, dealers want to show off their new offerings but there is much more to an auto event and a model is the perfect way to capitalize on your big affair.

Experienced car show models are an ideal solution to represent your brand at an auto event. They will attract customers with their professional presence and confident presentation. A great smile and warm hello are sure to stop visitors long enough for the model to engage them in the latest technology or luxurious comfort your auto has to offer.

Auto show models will study and learn everything you want them to in regard to the make and model they are representing….She will be able to appeal to the tech geek when she articulates your latest Bluetooth technology, the gear head with her knowledge of horsepower, or the eco-conscious when she discusses mileage. After hearing about your auto and seeing it sparkle under professional lighting, a consumer should be enticed enough to visit a dealer and give it a test drive.

The really big player in the automotive space is New York-based Productions Plus/The Talent Shop, which according to President Hedy Popson (a former spokesmodel herself) represents 17 global auto show client brands. Onboard fashion designers will do the costumes, and in-house product trainers teach the talent to talk knowledgeably about the new models. Productions Plus appears to be thriving, despite the times we live in.

From a German auto show, with the Ferrari Italia. European carmakers love spokesmodels. (Neuwleser/Flickr)

Popson says that car show models in the 1980s were "spin and grin girls--if we knew one thing about the car, it was a bonus." Kato Kaelin was one of the rare male car show models back then, she said, representing Nissan. But change was in the wind. In the late 1990s, the U.S. content of foreign cars became an issue, so the newly dubbed "product specialists" had to have actual information on that. They came off the turntable. By the mid-2000s, it was clear that women were influencing 83 percent of auto purchasing decisions, and so we began to see more male specialists--Popson says her mix is 60 percent women, 40 percent men.

The modern product specialist has come off the turntable, and has actual information. (Production Plus photo)

Training for specialists lasts three to seven days, and candidates visit the manufacturer for a crash course in the vehicle they'll be representing, Popson said. She said business is steady, but this year she's noted that less than 10 percent of automakers are using professional models for auto show press day duty. Elizabeth Williams, a product communications officer at Rolls-Royce, confirmed the switch from models to product specialists. "We work with our dealerships to make sure they have product specialists, both male and female, on hand to answer questions about the product being shown," she said. Toyota says much the same thing. The company switched to the product specialist model 18 years ago, so not prodded by the Me Too effect. "We were one of the first OEMs to embrace the reality and need for both women and men to be used as knowledgeable resources. We have a 60/40 male/female ratio," said spokesman Russ Koble.

There are some indeed some signs that a way of life is ending. Certainly, there were plenty of spokesmodels at the last five auto shows I attended. High-end European carmakers seem especially fond of them. And, of course, there's still plenty of business as usual. Audi spokesmodel Chelsea Smith says she’s asked 10 times a day, “Do you come with the car?” Her usual response, “Sorry, no.” Smith adds that it’s not a glamorous life. According to Forbes:

Days start early and include two hours of hair and makeup time; models share lockers and perfume in dingy bathrooms during their lunch break; killer heels and small dresses in air-conditioned conference halls make it difficult to look at ease posing by the latest sports coupe.

Chicago Auto Show, 2013. (Rushdl13/Flickr)

The pressure on auto companies to abandon models at car shows would seem to be roughly analogous to the use of cheerleaders at football games. But they too are feeling the heat. The Boston Globe opined:

In the midst of this #MeToo moment, it’s time to rethink NFL cheerleaders and their barely covered breasts being ogled on the sidelines by drunken men with binoculars. It’s embarrassing for us all. Or should be.

I agree with the Globe, but I don’t see the Cowboys and their ilk handing out pink slips tomorrow. In point of fact, auto shows and sports events share a sensibility that’s not exactly on the cutting edge of women’s rights. Change is going to take time.

Automakers, Kia in this case, will do anything to attract attention. It's not all spokesmodels. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But the Formula One move is real enough. F1’s Ross Brawn, managing director of motorsports, told BBC Radio 5 last December that the use of grid girls was “under review,” and would be suspended for the 2018 season. He said the custom “does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms. We don’t believe the practice is appropriate or relevant to Formula 1 and its fans, old and new, across the world.”

Toyota said in 2009 that “the benefits of Toyota products” were best articulated “by a living person, instead of by kiosks or flyers or brochures.” But that was then, before Harvey Weinstein and his own Me Too gang.

I predict the eventual retirement of cheerleaders and spokesmodels, but in a gradual fade to black, not an abrupt about-face. But here's the case for the prosecution, on video:


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