In Chinese, they have become known as "breast milk exhibitions" (乳展). Except, the shows have nothing to do with babies. Nor are they promotional events for plastic surgeons or any of the sketchy breast enlargement centers commonly found on China's streets. "Breast milk exhibitions" is the colloquial name that mainland social web wags now use for China's auto shows. All it takes is a look at a few photos from recent events to understand why the moniker makes sense.
China should probably have seen it all coming almost exactly a year ago when one Heilongjiang Province VW dealer used naked women to move product off the floor. The authorities are upset. But so far, the punishment bark is worse than the bite, which assures that China will only soon see more "breast milk exhibitions," no matter how pointless the promotions are.
Despite official warnings earlier this year to exhibitioners, China's auto shows have seen nothing but continued disrobing, culminating in a recent Haikou Auto Show where the model's models wore little more than pasties and body paint. And not very good body painting at that.
Following April's Beijing Auto Show, the nation's premier event for the industry, exhibitioners were reprimanded for what state-run media labeled "scantily clad" models who stole the show's limelight.
But the warnings did little to dissuade later shows. By early September the government was again issuing punishments to several exhibitors. The agents for Citroen, Kia and Toyota all became targets of criticism for using scantily clad models dressed in, essentially, lingerie. But a week later, things really got out of hand on the southern Island of Hainan.
Dressed in little more than body paint and a sarong, Haikou Auto Show's practically naked models led to increased use of the term "breast milk exhibitions" and for good cause. (A somewhat NSFW gallery here.) Making previous antics in Beijing and Chengdu look like Disney movies, topless models sucked all the attention away from the cars. Exhibitors claimed "art," but that did not persuade authorities. Once again, stern warnings were issued, though everyone was too busy gawking to hear them, giving a whole new meaning to "flash" photography.
Meanwhile, official, state media reporting on the auto shows was far more staid. The posed models from The Global Times' Chengdu dispatches were shot from a distance, and dressed in tasteful ball gowns.
While many online chided the auto shows for such exploitative promotions, the photos were passed around all over China's social networks and viral photo clearinghouse sites, assuring brands would break through the clutter in at least one way.
The auto show peep shows are just one of the sectors that have increasingly turned to scantily clad women as a messaging and attention gimmick. In Guangzhou, an amusement park offered to triple the salary of female lifeguards who came to work in a bikini. In July, a Nanjing weight loss service hired a half-naked foreign model to parade a round with a sign. At August's China Joy video game exposition in Shanghai, authorities banned bikinis. Yet, the event was filled with "cosplay" models wearing just barely more than a bikini.
And a recent milk promotion event called "Miss Dairy Cow" in Shaanxi Province featured women in bikinis.
Each new instance is met with official condemnation along with loads of free publicity, more or less guaranteeing that unless the punishments become more severe China's marketing professionals will continue to turn toward skin to brand build.
Of course the use of skin — yes, at auto shows — to draw attention to a product is a long-running favorite of marketers in the west. Just as "booth babes" has long been the derogatory term for companies' paid eye candy at conference, auto shows, of course, have long been known for draping shapely models over their new car models around the world. China's strategists appear to be coming to the same conclusion, but this still that doesn't mean the tactic — particularly when it comes to stripping off — generates the right kind of buzz, or sales.