Playing the Sex Card in Real Estate Ads

Sex and real estate -- what does one have to do with the other, you might ask.

Gets you to look, for one thing. And that's what real estate developers in New York are banking on with a provocative ad campaign that shows more skin than bricks and mortar.

In one print ad, a woman straddles a shirtless man on a bed next to the words "try this at home" -- home being the new Herald Towers condominiums in midtown Manhattan.

"People from the beginning of time want to buy a lifestyle, not a building, so there's always a gimmick," said Barbara Corcoran, who founded the Corcoran company, the largest real estate firm in New York. "The whole objective is to make a person feel more appreciated or more important. That's never changed."

What has changed is the marketplace. In the building boom, competition has become fierce. So now developers are using sex to sell real estate.

Corcoran said that a few years ago a company would have been brought up on ethics charges by the real estate board for such salacious advertising. "Now they say, 'Wow, how cool,'" she said.

'More Bang for Your Buck'

Corcoran has sold her company, but it's kept her name. She's proud of its latest campaign, "Live Who You Are," featuring photographs of couples, families and an elegantly dressed woman.

But the most popular picture shows a shirtless man leaning against a kitchen counter. It created a buzz on the Internet, with postings asking, "Does he come with the apartment?"

"This kind of ad stops readers in their tracks," Corcoran said. "They're surprised to find it's a real estate ad. You get more bang for your buck."

And that, of course, is the goal of advertisers -- to get as many eyeballs as possible focused on their products.

But that can also be the rub. "That would get you halfway there," said Don Peasley, a vice president with Leo Burnett Detroit, an advertising agency that handles the Pontiac account. "The other half is once you get their attention, you need them to stick around. You can make a big noise, but you need to follow up."

In other words, you'd better have the product to back up the imagery.

Peasely said there's nothing new in using sex to sell products. In the '70s and '80s, it was common in auto advertising "to play the sex card," with ads featuring attractive female models that implied "get the car, get the girl."

But Peasely said it's rare to see those kinds of ads anymore because of the risk of alienating part of the buying audience.

"You run the risk of offending women in general," Peasely said, adding that women now play a significant role in family finances, including deciding which car to buy. So playing the sex card is an unsafe bet.

"I doubt the wife will chime in with 'Let's buy that car to make my husband look more sexy to other people,'" he said.

Sexy vs. Elegant

New York real estate developers said their ads have garnered positive attention from both men and women. The question is whether this trend will spread to other real estate markets.

"I think that ad flies in New York City," said Jeremy Livengood, marketing director for EYA Urban, a real estate firm in Washington, D.C. "We are more buttoned-up and sophisticated in Washington."

As a result, Livengood said, "Sexy doesn't play here as well as elegance."

He pointed to a recent ad campaign for the luxurious Watergate condominiums featuring a man in a bathrobe sipping champagne in a condo overlooking the Potomac River and cherry blossoms. Livengood said the ad appeals to people's vanity. Whoever looks at that ad "wants to be that person."

Corcoran called the bathrobe ad "lovely" but said it's old hat.

She added, "Let's see what's under the robes."