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Pundit’s Mailbag — Further Discussion On Sexism In The Produce Industry

Our piece, Pundit’s Mailbag — Sexism In The Produce Industry, brought a series of letters. Let us take a look at three. Now which order should we put them in? Do we dare do ladies first?

I read with great interest your “Sexism in Produce” article. When I first became a produce salesperson at a large vegetable cooperative in the South in 1983, sexism was rampant in the industry as there were only a handful of produce salespeople who were women, a handful of growers who were women, a handful of truck drivers who were women and an even smaller handful of buyers or brokers who were women. Today, there are more than a handful, but the industry is still dominated by males in all aspects.

In 1983 and for the next decade, sex was used to sell everything from tomatoes, oranges and melons (but strangely not cucumbers or zucchinis). I realize that using sex to sell produce has roots going back as far as the 1930’s when labels pasted on wooden crates had beautiful pictures of scantily clad pinup girls and names such as Plenty Grand.

I remember several organizations sending out calendars with provocatively clad models promoting their vegetable products, much like the tool manufacturers and car manufactures did. I attended many PMA’s and United conventions in those years and many exhibitors had attractive, scantily clad female exhibitors (most of whom were not employees of these companies) promoting their produce.

The produce business has been slow to recognize that women have become a large part of their workforce in every aspect from growing, transportation, sales, finance and management and that buyers at the wholesale level and especially at the retail level are men and women of every race and creed. We have come a long way in this country and it is time for our business to join the rest of the professional businesses and eliminate using sex or objectifying women or men to gratuitously promote their products.

— Libby Beese
Sunrise Farms
St. Augustine, Florida


Sex in produce, instead of the perils of perishables??

I scrolled down to read right away!

Seriously, I agree with all points made that in this country, scantily-clad women at trade shows reflect rather badly on the marketer. The key point here is the term in this country. As a Latina, I can say that this negative association is not the same in most sophisticated Latin countries, where most of the time women in business are respected. Sometimes more so than they are in the U.S., simply because there are not so many.

However, if you go to any of the Mexican trade shows (i.e., ANTAD) or the many throughout Latin American, you will typically find nearly every other booth sporting “bikini girls.” The most memorable was at an ABRAS (supermarket industry group, similar to FMI) convention in Brazil. It was the Unilever booth: huge, as befits the health & beauty giant.

In one corner was a opaqueish glass shower resembling a waterfall in the Amazon, and behind this “grotto”, totally nude, or seemingly so, were young ladies washing their long tresses with their new “natural shampoo” brand.

You couldn’t see a thing but the outline and glimpse of skin, but it certainly was enough. Gathering by the sheer number of open-gaped men surrounding the Unilever booth, it meant other booths were empty. In a competitive world, I guess you do what you gotta do…

— Veronica Kraushaar,
VIVA Global Marketing, LLC
Nogales, Arizona


I understand both sides of the “argument”, but as a father of two daughters and a Christian, I agree with Deidre [the writer of the letter in the Pundit’s “Sexism” Mailbag].

You made an excellent point when stating: “Marketing with sex may get people to think of your company or brand, but what, precisely, will they be thinking of you?”

Thanks to you and Deidre for bringing this into the open.

— Gene Harris
Senior Purchasing Manager
Denny’s Inc.
Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Many thanks to Libby, Veronica and Gene for weighing in on this issue.

Libby’s thoughtful note focuses on a pragmatic matter — the increased number of female executives in the industry. This has at least two direct effects: A) It reduces the percentage of the buying population that would be favorably influenced by such marketing, and B) It increases the likelihood that such marketing will backfire and actually offend certain buyers.

As Veronica implies, Latin culture would confirm that we are prudish in the US. After all, some would argue it is both natural and perfectly acceptable for men to enjoy looking at beautiful women; therefore “manning” a booth with models can help attract a clientele, encourage the clients to spend time at that exhibitor’s booth, etc.

Yet Libby is saying that women find it offensive and, certainly, our culture now would say, let us focus on business at the trade show. If the guys want to go out to a strip club later, that is their prerogative. Although that gets challenged as well. As part of a business function, the guys heading off to a strip club may put a female executive in an uncomfortable place: Play along with something she finds degrading or sit it out and lose key face time with important clients.

One wonders how attitudes will evolve over time. There has been a move in the clothing of executive women… once they wore suits, complete with ties and shoulder pads — a decidedly masculine look. As women have come to become common in the executive suite, women have relaxed and their fashion has become decidedly more feminine.

Is it possible that women CEOs, secure in their place, don’t worry very much about a “salad girl” in a skimpy outfit? We are not sure.

Libby’s focus is very much on the presence of women at the trade shows as a good reason not to have such scantily clad models. Yet, Gene’s letter makes a different point.

As a man of faith, as a father of daughters, he imagines his own daughters being gawked at and finds it unacceptable.

Veronica makes a good point, though, that this is all a cultural phenomenon. She points out that in Latin America, things may be perceived differently and just a glance at French or Italian advertising indicates a different milieu than we have in the United States.

It really raises some fascinating questions. After all, if an exhibitor decides to have a jazz band at its booth — and let us assume it was a totally gratuitous use of jazz, completely unrelated to the product — nobody would object even though some people hate jazz and want hip-hop or classical.

Yet those models took those jobs freely, so they must see in using their own sexuality a power that, otherwise, they would lack.

This is really not a hard decision in the United States in 2009. At work, be it at a trade show or in an office, no sensible executive will encourage anything untoward when it comes to women. The reputational downside is great, the upside, very limited.

Yet, our impression is that as we have become more restrictive in attitudes toward overt sexuality in the workplace, there has been an explosion in the use of Internet porn.

Is having men objectify women in private really a big improvement over smiling at the Corvette girl at the show?

With much appreciation to Libby, Veronica and Gene for speaking up and helping us all become more thoughtful on an issue many feel passionate about.

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