What can The Simpsons tell us about trade shows?

Professional keynote speaker and events industry entrepreneur, Simon Burton has a new presentation that analyses how The Simpsons has featured trade show exhibitions since the Nineties. Mike Fletcher sits down with Simon to unpack the goings on in the Springfield Expo Centre and what the events industry can learn from being satirised. 

Mike Fletcher (MF): As Bart would say, ‘Don’t have a cow, man’ but what on earth has The Simpsons got to do with trade shows?

Simon Burton (SB): The Simpsons isn’t just a long-running TV show - it’s a social barometer that has reflected and critiqued all aspects of society for more than four decades.

We’re talking about a cartoon that has been on air for 34 seasons and has clocked up 750 episodes. Exhibitions feature in more than 15 different episodes and there are over two hours of animation from the trade show floor. Springfield, the town where the Simpsons live even has its own exhibition and convention centre. It’s a gold mine for understanding how wider society views our industry.

MF: It doesn’t alter the fact that The Simpsons is a cartoon about funny yellow people.

SB: Sure, but it’s also the longest-running primetime scripted show in the US, as well as the longest-running animated series in history. As events professionals, we moan regularly that the media doesn’t represent us and yet here we are, thoroughly represented in the biggest cultural phenomenon of the early 21st century.

MF: OK, but that representation is satirical, right? Surely The Simpsons just pokes fun at trade shows?

SB: Satire doesn’t just mock, it teaches and acts as a powerful mirror to reflect not just society and our human behaviours but also industry-specific practices. To quote Homer, (Simpson, not the author of The Odyssey), ‘it’s funny because it’s true’. We would be wise therefore to reflect on our industry’s quirks and flaws and find avenues for improvement. 

MF: I saw your presentation at a conference for independent exhibition organisers. You showed a clip from an episode that exemplifies how exhibitions inspire entrepreneurialism but at the same time, the stands were using outdated sexism and objectifying women to sell products.

SB: Ah yes, ‘Mr Plow’. It’s an episode that creates a lot of debate. On the one hand, we see the inspirational impact of a trade show to motivate Homer into starting his own snow ploughing business but on the flip side, the episode doesn’t shy away from historic and antiquated exhibiting techniques such as using promotional showgirls. It serves as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale of how our industry is still perceived. We need to accentuate the positives and eradicate outdated practices. 

MF: Are there any purely positive examples of trade shows in The Simpsons?

SB: There’s an episode in season three where Herb Powell launches his baby translator at a trade show, winning instant acclaim and gaining market feedback. He makes his fortune. The episode brilliantly captures how exhibitions are the perfect platform to showcase innovation and gauge an audience’s reaction. That’s not to say that some of the other exhibitors in the episode aren’t gently teased though.

MF: Satire aside, what observations do you offer on how both The Simpsons and exhibitions have evolved since the Nineties?

SB: Technology and societal changes have had a significant impact on both exhibitions and how The Simpsons reflect human behaviour. However, at their core, the fundamentals remain the same: The Simpsons is a storytelling medium that reflects the zeitgeist, and trade shows are platforms for human interaction and business opportunities. What changes is the way these stories are told and how these interactions occur. Now, with virtual trade shows, online streaming and advances in event technology, the challenge is to maintain that authentic engagement. It makes the lessons we can draw from The Simpsons even more relevant as we navigate these shifts.

MF: The Simpsons often uses meta-commentary to poke fun at its own structure and tropes. How can trade shows employ a similar self-reflective approach to keep things fresh and engage an ever-sceptical audience?

SB: What a great idea! The brilliance of The Simpsons lies in its self-awareness. Trade shows could certainly borrow a leaf from this book. Imagine a trade show that opens with a satirical keynote, acknowledging the common clichés: the overpriced food, the labyrinthine floor plans, or the awkward networking sessions. By laughing at itself, the event disarms the audience and creates an atmosphere where genuine engagement can happen. If it’s good enough for The Simpsons it should be good enough for us.

MF: The Simpsons is also a dab hand at predicting the future isn’t it?

SB: You’re right, it has predicted everything from smartwatches to the Trump presidency. If it is featured on The Simpsons, the chances are it’s something we should all be paying attention to. 

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