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Playing the Sex Card

A woman with tousled hair straddles a grinning, shirtless man on a bed alongside the words: “Try This at Home.” This was not an advertisement for beer, perfume or instructional Kama Sutra DVD’s. It was an advertisement for the Herald Towers condominiums in Midtown Manhattan.

In a print advertisement for the Link condominiums, also in Midtown, a red-lipped topless woman (only a sliver of one breast was visible) is shown sitting in an apartment while a tattoo is applied to her exposed back.

A glossy advertisement for the Altair 20 in Chelsea has lush greenery framing a shower stall and a svelte, wet, naked woman with a strategically positioned banner that reads “To the Altair 20 Rainforest.”

Some of the advertisements for new condominiums this year look more like ads for condoms, and that has caused more than a few eyes to linger on traditionally staid real estate listings. These provocative advertisements have also raised eyebrows among real estate and advertising professionals who say sex has never been germane to real estate marketing the way it is, say, to music and underwear.

Titillating advertisements are a nearly fail-safe way to capture consumer attention in a slower, more competitive market. But their existence also raises the question of how to sell real estate — whether salacious advertising is a smart strategy that can win buyers or a lazy tactic that lacks creativity and alienates viewers. It is an ideological tug-of-war between the stately and the cheeky, between white gloves and bare skin.

“It used to be very much oriented toward elegance,” said Neil Binder, a principal in Bellmarc Realty, “the guy wearing white gloves opening up the brass door, or the couple at a social gathering with effective violin and concert music behind it. That’s the old-school way of how you sold New York prestige.”

“Now,” he said, “it’s bare backs.”

Selling real estate these days means selling a lifestyle, according to industry professionals. People are “looking for a narrative in terms of how they’re going to live,” said Jasmine Mir, the senior vice president of the Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group. The aim, she said, is to match buyers’ “lifestyle expectations by showing them imagery that will allow them to imagine an exciting and appealing lifestyle living in the building.”

“I think the advertising is, at its heart, emotional,” she added. “I think people need to be reached in an emotionally compelling way more and more in this market.”

These days some people feel compelled to stop and stare. As Mr. Binder of Bellmarc joked, “My wife says to me, ‘Neil, how come you take so long to read the real estate ads now?’ ”

Eye-candy advertisements are not the norm, though more can probably be expected, partly as a way to generate excitement in a quieter market and partly because some young bloods are enjoying shaking things up.

The Developers Group, a sales and marketing firm, first departed from the tried and tame in January with an advertisement for the Hudson Condominiums near the Time Warner Center, which showed an image of the 20-story building accompanied by the statement: “You Know Where You Can Stick Your Bonus.”

The firm’s partners, who are all younger than 35, were bored by cookie-cutter real estate advertisements featuring building facades and logos.

“A lot of the ads were looking identical,” said Highlyann Krasnow, the chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Developers Group. “To be a young company, it was getting to be painful for us,” she said. “They all seemed the same. They just weren’t fun.”

The “stick it” advertisement, as Ms. Krasnow calls it, created buzz for the condominium and got the firm noticed by developers who had never heard of it. “It became a conversation piece,” she said.

The Developers Group’s new campaign to promote itself, which began showing up around town last month, has a photograph of a man and a woman in a clench on top of a washer and dryer, sandwiched between the phrases “Developing Passion” and “W/D Hook-Up.”

So far, the company’s advertisements have not included scantily clad women, and Ms. Krasnow said she had no interest in being an “overtly sexy women-in-bikinis-on-the-beach kind of company.”

“There’s kind of a humor behind it,” she said of her advertising. “It makes it seem a little bit more intelligent. At the same time we are alluding to sex because sex does sell.”

Risqué advertisements are generally the handmaidens of new construction, not of prewar buildings. And classic New York residences, like those on Park Avenue and Central Park West, need no marketing campaigns.

“There are certain prestige addresses in the city,” said Sam Craig, a professor of advertising and marketing management at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University. “But it’s not because of sex.”

Of course, sexy advertisements are hardly startling these days, especially with the proliferation of Internet pornography, but when women are pictured alone and in various states of undress in real estate advertisements (as opposed to beer advertisements), it raises larger issues.

Linda Kaplan Thaler, chief executive and chief creative officer of the Kaplan Thaler Group, an advertising agency, said marketing a property with well-endowed women was a throwback to the days when men were the only income earners.

“It’s very limiting,” she said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to sell anything anymore.”

As Professor Craig put it, “They’re potentially alienating half their audience.”

He added that pinup-girl advertising, particularly if done for shock value, also had the potential to inspire a backlash. Ms. Krasnow said such advertisements, which are more common in cities like Las Vegas and Miami, give the message that single men are the sole buyers of real estate.

“There are a lot of single women,” Ms. Krasnow said. “There are a lot of women in couples, whether a straight couple or a gay couple. Those ads to me are completely missing the target audience.”

Sometimes, however, the target audience is single heterosexual men, as was the case for 255 Hudson, a condominium near Broome Street. Earlier this year, Lizzie Grubman Public Relations (a firm best known for its celebrity clients, including Russell Simmons, Tommy Mottola and Britney Spears) worked with the Corcoran Group on a promotional event that was part of a larger marketing campaign for 255 Hudson, at the Classic Car Club Manhattan across the street.

(Those who buy apartments in the building receive a membership to the club, a lending library of sorts where members can borrow from an array of status cars, including a 1957 Porsche Speedster and a 1977 Aston Martin.)

Models hired for the event circulated among potential buyers, the cars and an open bar wearing panties, pasties and body paint. The paint was applied to evoke skintight race car driver suits, but the effect was more Jessica Rabbit than Danica Patrick. The words: “Condo included. Girl Not Included,” were written on the women’s backs.

Lizzie Grubman Public Relations has increasingly been sought by real estate companies in the last year, including Corcoran, which calls itself the city’s largest residential real estate company. “Companies have come to our agency because they want to go beyond the tradition,” said Sabrina Levine, Ms. Grubman’s partner. “Now it’s all about making their building buzz-worthy.”

Ms. Thaler was not so much surprised as unimpressed.

“I think the whole idea of using sex to sell apartments is passé,” she said. “In the 1980’s and 90’s, sex was very disruptive and naughty and taboo so we wanted to take a peek.”

Now, it is ubiquitous. “It’s not the new taboo anymore,” Ms. Thaler said.

And unlike most clichés, “sex sells” is not necessarily true.

Deborah Morrison, an associate professor specializing in advertising at the University of Oregon in Eugene, said research shows that while people gawk at sexually charged advertisements, companies do not often get what they pay for.

“The laughable part is that someone might remember the image,” Professor Morrison said, “but I bet they will not remember who ran it and where it was at.”

Mr. Binder of Bellmarc and Professor Craig suggested that when marketers play the sex card, it is an indication of trouble, though no marketing executive would admit to such a thing.

Still, Mr. Binder said, “I can’t deny the legitimacy of the strategy.”

Ms. Mir of Corcoran Sunshine Marketing said that in the case of 255 Hudson, the marketing technique was a risk, but a calculated one.

“Many women responded even more positively to the ads than we expected,” she said. “There weren’t any fewer women who responded than on any other comparable property.”

The strategy is not right for every property, however. Marketing companies become partners with an array of agencies to identify and promote different vibes for different buildings. Corcoran’s marketing plan for 255 Hudson is vastly different from the one for the Stanhope condominium at 995 Fifth Avenue, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a print advertisement showing the building’s austere and manicured facade.

“If we had a party for the Stanhope,” said Pamela Liebman, the president and chief executive of the Corcoran Group, “it would maybe be at the museum.”

Corcoran’s latest self-promotional advertisements, a series of black and white portraits, are directed at various consumers. The ads feature a glamorous elderly woman, twin girls in matching tennis whites, a couple holding hands, a diapered baby, women in bathing suits and a woman, a boy and two dogs on a stoop. But it is an image of a bare-chested man next to the words, “Triple-Mint, New to the Market,” that has inspired the kind of chatter usually reserved for a Calvin Klein advertisement.

In fact, some consumers are rather pleased to see a hunky man in a real estate advertisement instead of a sexy woman.

“Since the earliest days of Madison Avenue, we’ve been assaulted by scantily clad females, posed suggestively upon automobiles, furniture, lumber and home appliances,” reads a post on Towleroad.com, a Web site where readers discussed a Chelsea billboard showing the “Triple-Mint, New to the Market” man. The writer added that it was about time “we got some hunk-o-licious revenge.”

Another reader simply wondered: “Does he come with the apartment?”

Ms. Mir of Corcoran Sunshine Marketing said: “I don’t think we think in terms of what would be sexy. It’s ‘what do we think would reach our target audience in an engaging way?’ ”

The Corcoran branding campaign can be viewed at Corcoran.com, where clicking on an image of the shirtless man advertisement and then selecting a link called “Fun Fact” leads visitors to the following text: “In the majority of shots of this model he was wearing a sweater. It wasn’t until the end of the shoot that we asked him to take his shirt off and take a few pictures.”

“Then we realized we had the perfect shot.”

 

Stephanie Rosenbloom, The New York Times, July 16, 2006.

Copyright © 2006 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

 

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