Motor show time-warp: why draping women over new cars is wrong in 2017

Published: 06 June 2017

► Motor shows and scantily clad women
► Isn't this misogynistic trend a bit 1972?
► Mark Walton on car industry's shame 

I wish I’d gone to the Geneva motor show back in 1972. In my mind, I picture a simple circle of nylon shag-pile carpet with a wedge-shaped concept car on it, penned by Gandini. The only adornments on the stand are a white flowerpot and a peroxide blonde wearing a plastic jumpsuit. Thanks to an early diet of Top Trumps and Lamborghini posters, in my imagination every stand is like this in Geneva in 1972, even Austin Morris.

Sadly I missed that era by a small matter of several decades, but 45 years later I find myself in Geneva in 2017, witnessing another chapter unfold in the auto industry. Instead of Gandini wedges, every stand this year featured a self-parking, interconnected hybrid touchscreen-on-wheels with video cameras instead of rear-view mirrors. (Apart from Pagani, which is still flogging versions of the Zuhyuarando, or whatever it’s called.)

Perhaps it’s because of this homogenous propaganda message of ‘a new dawn’ – a 21st century revolution of smartphone apps, battery motors and please-don’t-mention-the-diesels – that made something really stand out this year: the girls in the plastic jump suits are still here. 

Our full guide to the 2017 Geneva motor show

Geneva motor show 2017: female models are used on most stands

It’s bizarre. Everything about the 2017 Geneva motor show spoke of corporatism, of tightly controlled messaging, of multicultural marketing with images of beautiful, wholesome families going surfing and mountain biking with dogs that don’t smell, and children who are always fascinated by what they see out of the window and who never argue over the phone charger. 

'You’d come across a stand with a blonde in a revealing plastic dress, her fake grin held up by a scaffolding of make-up as she tries to ignore the agonisingly sharp heels'

Yet in the midst of all this stylised, politically correct perfection, you’d come across a stand with a blonde in a revealing plastic dress, her fake grin held up by a scaffolding of make-up as she tries to ignore the agonisingly sharp heels. For some reason, this year more than ever, I found it unbelievably tacky.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a male, a northerner, I have a bald patch. I’m not some spoilsport snowflake who thinks all men are burdened with the collective guilt of our oppressive, sexist and imperialist past. Nah. Blokes are genetically programmed to be blokes, frankly, and if you drape a pretty blonde over a car then sure, men will look. I get why it works. 

But then if Lexus staged a beheading on their stand as they launched the new LS500h, plenty of men would probably watch that too. Appealing to our base instincts doesn’t make it right, especially when the rest of the message is about ‘integrated zero-emissions mobility’ and eating muesli in the morning.

In that environment, there’s something really extra-creepy about the journalists who go round taking pictures of the girls. And I don’t mean professional photographers doing a job for magazines and websites, I’m talking about the old hacks with their pocket cameras, going from stand to stand, shamelessly asking the girls to pose, all legs and cleavage. It’s a grim sight at any modern motor show.

Female models at motor shows: an anachronism?

Of course, most manufacturers don’t do it any more: Range Rover didn’t need a girl to launch their amazing Velar at Geneva, and Alpine certainly didn’t want any distractions when they unveiled the A110. So it’s mostly the small stands, the tuners and modifiers – like the German company ABT, which had two girls sitting on its cars who (let’s be honest) looked like they’d cut up a pair of tights and were wearing one leg each as a dress.

But there are still some mainstream manufacturers who do it, and I’m going to name and shame: the likes of Kia, Lexus, Skoda and Fiat, surely you don’t need this any more? Yes, motor shows are about glamour and aspiration, but the days when TVR got two models to pose completely naked at the London Motor Show back in 1971 are surely behind us? TVR later produced a Penthouse special edition – imagine Aston Martin or Volvo doing that now? The XC60 Razzle edition. 

Times have changed, and along with all the inductive charging and autonomous parking baloney we have to put up with, we also have new expectations of how we want cars to be sold to us. I’d love to travel back to the early 1972 to see the Lamborghini Countach being unveiled; hell, I’d probably even take a photo of the girl in the bikini draped over it too, if I was there. But try to pull that stuff in 2017 and it’s about as cool as smoking on aeroplanes, asbestos insulation and 8mpg fuel economy. Some things were meant to go out of fashion. 

More blogs by Mark Walton

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast