CES 2020: the questions for brands around inclusivity and sex positivity

Brands, agencies, and technologists can't consider themselves true innovators unless they've mastered one of most pervasive challenges in any business: putting people and their needs at the center of everything you do.

The technology at CES is the least interesting part of the festival. Don’t get me wrong: the promise of stunning 8K televisions from Samsung, a tool to teach visually impaired children to code from American Printing House for the Blind, actual mind readers from NextMind – these are all laudable examples of innovations we’ll see in Vegas that will shape our world. Three years into attending the festival and I still get starry-eyed standing in the middle of Tech West as robots whir around the show floor.

But in spite of that, it’s actually the people and the conversation about humanity that’s the most fascinating part of CES. This year, we’re seeing a return to people in a conference about technology. For advertisers, technologists, and publishers alike, when you think about what you’ll take away for your customers and audience, it’s time to ask ourselves some potentially uncomfortable questions. Because a particular centricity on human rights is going to be the most provocative stuff you see at CES: inclusivity and sex positivity.

On Inclusivity:

In the past, the culture at CES has faced issues around diversity and inclusion, from the history of booth babes, to the lack of female keynotes (though that part improved greatly last year) and more. This year, I’m encouraged that the CTA has admitted its blind spots in that area and partnered with The Female Quotient as the official diversity partner. It’s still unclear how this partnership will manifest beyond the Female Quotient lounge, usually chock full of interesting conversations about gender, power, media, and tech. But regardless of how that works out, CES has coalesced a powerfully diverse speaker line up of movers and shakers, including better representation of women of color.

For marketers attending the conference, regardless of your gender identity, here’s takeaway number one: be a part of the conversation. Panels about women, LGBTQ folx, and people of color shouldn’t just be attended by those communities. Being a true ally means you actively participate in conversations that don’t directly affect you.

Taking it a step further, that also means that when attending the big talks or mainstream areas of the show floor, think about conversations through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, Apple’s big return to the conference this year is for a panel on consumer privacy. That panel should include a focus on what privacy means for marginalized communities like LGBTQ. If big panels and keynotes don’t have those types of topics included: ask the question to the speakers!

On the show floor, if you’re interested in working with an exhibiting company, ask the booth representatives: Who developed this technology? Were people of color included in the development? Things like facial recognition have had serious issues in recognizing darker skin tones. Any brand that wants to invest in the latest technology has a moral responsibility to make sure that what they’re investing in doesn’t perpetuate potentially prejudiced outcomes. Asking the tough questions on the show floor will make you a better marketer for thinking more holistically.

That said, it’s worth noting that, unfortunately, in an attempt to get rid of booth babes, the CTA has imposed a dress code against "clothing that reveals an excess of bare skin, or body-confirming clothing that hugs genitalia."

But putting a dress code on the floor of the world’s biggest tech event doesn’t work towards solving for systemic inequality in the industry. Tech as a whole has faced numerous problems in treating women like objects or leaving them out of rooms and silenced in conversations. A dress code doesn’t put the responsibility on tech companies where  just 11% of leadership roles are held by women. What a dress code does do is make the problem about women and their bodies.

On Sex Positivity:

Which brings me to the next prediction of what we can expect at CES: sex positivity. Kind of. Between sex dolls and Naughty America’s VR and AR porn, sex tech for cis-men has never been a question at the show. But it’s been a different story for women’s sex tech. That double standard made waves last year when the CTA first rescinded, then six months later, re-awarded, an innovation award for Lora DiCarlo’s robotic sex toy for women.

This year, CES will feature sex tech in the wellness section of the show floor, a significant step in the right direction. That said, sex tech is being allowed on a one-year trial - despite the fact that the likes of VR porn for men were, seemingly, never put through the same scrutiny.

If the trial ends optimistically and we have sex tech as a mainstay fixture at CES, it would be a really big deal to have women’s health beyond motherhood and beauty taken seriously at the biggest technology event in the world. Both women’s health and sexual health is vastly under-researched in medical fields. Having sex positive technology for women on display on such a visible stage sends a clear message that the oldest double standard in the book isn’t welcome in the future. It also lends credibility to a market that is expected to reach a staggering $122B by 2026, driven by women and queer folx.

For marketers attending CES, it might seem like the moral challenges I’m talking about don’t touch your brand or business. However, the reality of what’s happening with sex, gender, and bodies here are akin to the problems of representation in media and marketing. It’s a microcosm of the challenges women still face across society. Brands, so intrinsically linked to culture today, can’t not pay attention to these conversations.

After all, women are very likely a critical audience for your brand. Another takeaway for you: ask yourself - how are you representing women? Are they being shown beyond motherhood or stereotypes around beauty? Do they have representation in the nuanced, layered way that we show men, with a multitude of factors beyond just gender? What about gender non-conforming folx?

In the midst of all the big tech and small startup fun, it’s the human centric provocations that I still find most interesting each year at CES for both myself and my clients. Because while new screens open new content formats and voice technology brings new commerce opportunities, brands, agencies, and technologists can’t consider themselves true innovators unless they’ve mastered one of most pervasive challenges in any business: putting people and their needs at the center of everything you do.

In 2020, I’ll be heading to Vegas with an equal mix of optimism and a healthy dose of scrutiny. Change is happening incrementally, as it so often does – and we can hasten that change by driving the conversation and asking the right questions. Questions that show that at long last, a festival about technology has become an event about humanity.

Rachel Lowenstein is associate director, partner, Invention+, at Mindshare.

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