It’s Time to Rethink the Spokesmodel Standard

It’s just one case, and it hasn’t even gone to trial, but it makes you wonder.

As we reported recently on BevNET.com, Kevin Klock, the then-CEO of Talking Rain, left the company in March shortly after a sales manager complained that he had sexually harassed her. It’s still not clear whether Klock, who did not comment on the situation, was fired or resigned, and there have been no criminal charges filed. As part of the lawsuit, the company has also been named as a defendant – the plaintiff claims that after the incident, she wasn’t able to continue her career at Talking Rain and that the environment was discriminatory.

That’s one view. It’s a single-story one.

But what will we see if we take a view from higher up? At a time when high-profile sexual harassment and discrimination cases are emerging throughout industry after industry, is there another shoe waiting to drop in the beverage business?

After all, this isn’t an industry that’s afraid of objectification. I was thinking that as the story broke, because it broke during, of all conventions, NACS. It’s not the rule, but the annual convenience store show’s beer and energy drink booths are almost a full employment act for swimsuit models. Depending on the kind of product and the kind of company you’re looking at, there are hundreds of other ways that brands try to draw attention to themselves through a phalanx of so-called “booth babes.”

There are many degrees of cultural criticism. Some people argue that this kind of product representation objectifies women, and is part of an overall culture that creates openings for violence against women. Others argue that women who choose to take these jobs are empowered in their ability to use their beauty to their economic advantage. Does having ogled a model at a NACS show in the past make you a bad person? I hope that’s not the case. Should harassers and abusers be concerned? Yes, and I hope they are: they are more likely than ever to face consequences they deserve. We need to understand that times have changed, and behaviors have to as well, and they should have a long time ago.

The biggest companies, certainly, say they have heard the message. Contacts at Coke and Pepsi and DPSG overwhelmingly say they and their companies try to recognize the importance of diversity and the kind of corporate black eye that can result from harassment and abuse scandals. They say they’ve long required human resources and sensitivity training. They know these are criminal, civil, and cultural issues that can bring down a business, and they have to be smarter than that. (For what it’s worth, from empirical observation over the past few years, their booths feature people who are actually dressed. But they also are in business with plenty of companies who are deeply into scantily clad as sales strategy.)

They also, I hope, recognize the deep moral roots from which grow equal treatment, equal opportunity, equal protection. Otherwise, the business isn’t worth the ground it’s built on.

But there are companies, there’s the cultural tide, and there are the individuals who exist within them. And right now, across industries, across government, across various institutions – yes, the media included – those individuals are being dragged into the light.

So let’s think about it: does treating women as props at these shows, and in field marketing strategies overall, create a cultural allowance for the mistreatment of women? Can it also mean we’re less likely to treat them as the valued colleagues and business people that they are?

These are the things we should think about while we wonder which will be the next shoe to drop. Because it will. The real question is, how does the industry react when it does? From the top of the biggest companies to the smallest brands, maybe it’s time to really check ourselves, to think about what we do, what we allow, what we enable, what we encourage – without thinking at all.