A hostess poses next to a Skoda Vision X. Picture: Martial Trezzini / Keystone via AP.
A hostess poses next to a Skoda Vision X. Picture: Martial Trezzini / Keystone via AP.

Geneva, Switzerland - At this year’s Geneva Motor Show many of the car companies want showgoers to focus their minds more on the models - the cars, that is, not the women.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement's explosion and growing awareness about sexual harassment, some motor industry executives have been taking a new look at the traditional use of often scantily-clad women on display stands at car shows.

Some companies say a cultural shift is in the air. Though a walk through this year's Geneva show suggests the industry still actively associates its products with female sensuality and uses models to leverage that.

"I don't think we will be able to change the situation from one day to the next," said Susie Wolff, former development driver for the Williams racing team in Formula One, which has recently decided to stop using models at the start of competitions.

Wolff doesn't like the idea of women standing by merely to be objectified. "But I think we are making change in a positive way," said Wolff, who was at the show to promote an initiative to get more women involved in motorsports.

Leggy and heavily made-up models still adorn the stands at the Geneva show, though there seems to be a bit less skin on show than previous years.

"We never looked into optics, or whatever, when it comes to our presenters," said Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes. "Our customers coming here expect from us that we can properly explain what our product is all about. And that is for me the more important thing."

South Africa’s Johan van Zyl, now head of Toyota Motor Europe, said his company isn't using women models to shape the image of the vehicles.

Toyota's Johan van Zyl says traditional 'show girls' go against his company's values. Picture: Pierre Albouy / Reuters.

"It is all about explaining the product," van Zyl said. "Of course, models can also be utilised, but we don't want to make a derogatory type of display of females. It is not our company value and it is not what we want to be: Totally against it."

Like many other car companies, Toyota and Rolls-Royce ditched models in favour of assistants (both male and female), who were dressed in business-wear.

They belong to a new breed of so-called "car explainers", which are an increasingly common sight at car shows, and whose primary role is to provide information on the cars on display.

At Renault for instance, Wittmann said the decision had been reached years ago to change its show strategy and focus on competence over sex appeal.

"When we recruit hosts and hostesses for the show, what we are interested in is the (candidate's) capacity to be a good car explainer and to promote our products," he said.

He said the French automaker had added more men and had basically attained gender parity at its booth.

However, there continue to be a few outliers, including luxury Italian brand Manifattura Automobili Torino, which has this year again staffed its stand with models in short-short dresses and thigh-high boots.

One of the women towering over a nifty little Manifattura sports car is Italian model Eva Squillari, who told AFP she saw no problem with modelling at the show.

"It's my work, so I always pose for photographers. And I'm not naked so there's nothing wrong with this," she said.

Squillari, who has been modelling for eight years and is at the Geneva show for the second year running, said she did not believe she or other women were "objectified" at the car show.

"It's a very friendly show so there's a lot of respect for models who are posing here," she said.

Two young women in short dresses were also posing for pictures at Swiss tire-maker Cooper Tires' stand.

"Trying to make a tire look sexy is a challenge," one of the managers at the stand, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

"Men like to take pictures of women," he said, pointing out that "every car that was on TV was with a girl in front. This has always been part of the masculine world of car shows," he added.

The stands of Italian carmakers Fiat and Alfa Romeo meanwhile continued to employ mainly women to showcase their vehicles.

But the women were modestly dressed, and Fiat Chrysler chief Sergio Marchionne told reporters he did not think "we are being offensive to anybody with this". 

While hailing the shifts underway, some of the women on the floor stressed that sexism was still alive and well at car shows like the one in Geneva.

One car explainer, who refused to give her name, said she had received a number of "vulgar and unwanted comments".

"And sometimes clients ask to speak with a man, since they are apparently more competent..." she said.

Silvia Blattner, a spokeswoman for the Palexpo convention center that hosts the auto show, declined to wade in on the issue, saying in an e-mail that the motor show is a "neutral" platform for carmakers, which are free to decide how to present themselves.

Story: AP & AFP