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Pundit’s Mailbag — Sexism In The Produce Industry

I was reading the Perishable Pundit’s smart and progressive column in PRODUCE BUSINESS this morning and thought, with PMA around the corner — perhaps Jim Prevor would champion or at least take a look at my concern for what I believe to be antiquated and chauvinistic practices still seen within the produce industry.

In this day and age, I’d like to think that there is no excuse for scantily clad women, hired to be on display, in anyone’s trade show booth. (An exception I can think of would be last year’s Guatemala booth which had provocatively dressed FEMALE and MALE Mayan dancers.)

Visit Us at Exhibition Booth #1802
PMA Fresh Summit, October 2-5
Anaheim, California

“We’ve Got You Covered”

The above is from Coosemans’ website. As you probably will recall, in the recent past — the “girls” hired to work the Coosemans booth have not been covered with much.

As a professional from within this industry and as a mother of two daughters, I find this sort of message to the industry and public to be a huge embarrassment, unprofessional, old-school and frankly inexcusable.

I voiced my opinion to Coosemans after the ’08 convention in Orlando. I hope to hear that Coosemans has decided to discontinue this practice and feature produce at this year’s tradeshow instead of cleavage.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

Deidre Smyrnos
Formerly Northeast sales representative
CF Fresh
Rye, New Hampshire

We appreciate the kinds words about our column. We like balance and since we are sometimes told we are Hannity-like and should be a talent on Fox News, it is a treat to also be called “progressive.”

On this issue, we have struggled because there are conflicting issues at stake and the answer depends on, to some extent, in what capacity we are being asked the question.

One issue we have to put right up front is freedom of speech.

Back in June 1991, Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS ran a cover story on Women in Produce. The issue included an advertisement from Lisenbey, Inc that featured a former Miss Arkansas, scantily clad in a bikini. Though the headline innocently read, “Relax. Arkansas’ Home-Grown Tomatoes Are Ready!”, the juxtaposition of the article and the ad brought several letters objecting and we published a response.

The gist of the response was that PRODUCE BUSINESS served as a kind of open forum for the industry and that, as such, allowing the ad to run was appropriate.

So, in the case of an exhibit booth that has been challenged on grounds such as these, we would presume that PMA or any exposition operator would be hesitant to issue a cease-and-desist notice.

Our youthful expression on this issue has always troubled us as not quite right. Free speech is an issue, but it is really an issue for government.

Private organizations such as PRODUCE BUSINESS or PMA have their own free-speech rights, and certainly that includes the right to reject inappropriate ads or inappropriate exhibit displays.

Yet it is problematic and a right that needs to be exercised softly. There are only limited numbers of outlets, and the attempts to impose uniform standards in these industry venues is likely to often cause conflicts as, on a multitude of issues, not just this one, the organization who control the “commons” of our industry attempt to impose their values and standards.

It is interesting that your letter addresses Coosemans, because they are a company with European roots and the standard for use of sexuality in advertising and marketing in Europe is quite different than in the US. To what degree cultural uniformity should be enforced by PRODUCE BUSINESS or PMA is a subject to be wrestled with.

On the other hand, there is a separate issue of efficacy and whether or not the scantily clad women are permitted in an ad or on an exhibit hall, the question is whether a company actually gains from using such techniques.

We doubt it. Marketing is tricky because many times the short term impact can be encouraging — lots of traffic at a booth, for example. Yet the long-term implications, what that traffic will mean for corporate image and future sales and profits, is uncertain.

The last time a client submitted an ad that we thought counterproductive because of its use of sexuality, the Pundit wrote a private note to the company attempting to persuade the executives of the company to change the creative. They decided to do so. Here is the case we made in a slightly edited version of the letter:

I wanted to write you today because as a client I feel an obligation to offer you not just our obedience in doing what is asked but also to offer our judgment — a judgment honed by over two decades of involvement in the ad campaigns of hundreds of produce companies.

I think that you should withdraw the ad from use in the industry. If you run it, your company will get 15 minutes of fame — your salespeople will get high fives, everyone will notice you — and when it is all said and done, the industry will think less of your very fine company.

Like your family, I too am fourth-generation in the produce trade in America. And some things never change. The importance of a good name, good quality, fair dealing — all these are constants since my great grandfather set up a produce wholesaling operation in New York.

But in other ways the industry has changed; in fact the world has changed. Not only are there more women in professional positions but many of the men today have corporate backgrounds, MBAs etc., and this ad won’t come across as professional.

It is possible that you will very specifically lose business or the potential to sell business. There are important people in the industry; people such as Heather Shavey, Assistant General Merchandise Manager for Fresh Foods and Produce at Costco, who, my guess is, will take serious exception to the ad.

But beyond those individuals, even to men and women who have no particular objection to the ad, it just won’t make your organization seem a better company; it will make your company seem retrograde and dated.

Remember that corporations often have to respond not to the ad itself, but to employee complaints about the ad. At a company such as Wal-Mart, sensitive after allegations have been made that they haven’t paid women fairly, the wrong complaint could lead to your being dropped from the vendor list.

In today’s litigious world, a company that allows such ads to be around the office could wind up having the ads entered in evidence as a form of sexual harassment — which only requires proving that an employer allowed a hostile environment to exist. Please don’t think that VPs at places such as Sysco, Safeway, Kroger, and Supervalu are oblivious to these issues.

It is not the photo, per se, the naked body has long been recognized as a legitimate object d’art. One suspects that used in some other context the photo might be fine. The problem is the photo in this context, when combined with the headline, specifically urges the objectification of women. Implicitly, this means that your company is saying that all the buyers are men. This is not true and is thus particularly insulting to female buyers.

Although I know you never intended anything like this, all you need ask is how you will answer when asked why there is not, instead, a naked man in that ad — and the answer, self-evidently, is that the ad is an attempt to appeal to men’s prurient interests in order to sell products.

In a business-to-business ad in 2009, that is simply not the way to go.

Your company is an industry leader and should run a campaign that helps elevate the industry and its own reputation.

This is basically the point: Marketing with sex may get people to think of your company or brand, but what, precisely, will they be thinking about you?

We will say that we do not think that putting scantily clad men in the booth solves the problem; that is a kind of political correctness that doesn’t stand up to sustained inquiry.

What probably does make sense is to look at the authenticity of the connection between the marketing and what one is selling. The Guatemalan dancers, dancing authentic Guatemalan folk dances, is the presentation of a work of art to establish the connection between the product and the place. It is authenticity marketing. If the authentic dances depended on all female, all male, all children or all senior citizens, it would not make any difference.

We could question whether this kind of marketing really has enough meaning to a produce buyer to be effective, but, certainly, it is not offensive.

In this sense, the critique is not that a booth or an ad features a scantily clad female. It is that the scantily clad women have nothing to do with what is being sold; it is gratuitous.

We know that on occasion PMA and other trade show sponsors have spoken to exhibitors and gotten agreement to have staff dress more conservatively. And, obviously, if things reach a point where it is disruptive, any trade show organizer is going to stop an exhibitor from impacting the show just as a magazine publisher is not going to allow ads that offend the readership.

So having been asked to weigh in on the matter, here is where we come down:

For the most part, such efforts are a waste of money — or worse — for an advertiser or an exhibitor. Not only do they expose a company to substantial downside risk that individual buyers and whole organizations will decline to do business with you, but, even if that does not happen, the point of advertising and exhibiting is not just to attract attention, it is to make the buying community think better of your organization and your products. Having scantily clad women around doesn’t achieve that goal.

Although in the end organizations such as PMA and PRODUCE BUSINESS have to protect their attendees and readers against offensive material and protect the integrity of the environment for other exhibitors and advertisers, this is a diverse industry. Some people sell to Wal-Mart and some sell to small wholesalers; some of us are Americans and some come from other countries; some import, some export; we go from the farm to the consumer and everything in between, so there are bound to be different standards of what is acceptable and what is not.

It is friendlier and thus more conducive to industry collegiality for those who control “public” industry events and resources to try to persuade rather than dictate.

What Ms. Smyrnos did in communicating her dissatisfaction to an exhibitor strikes us as right and valuable. It doesn’t actually take many complaints before most exhibitors will perceive a need to change their approach.

We thank Deidre Smyrnos for weighing on an issue that many are passionate about.

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