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Sex and the City, or County, or Zip Code

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I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this before. The comments are really enlightening as well. Read the whole thing.

Now to turn to the question itself: Does sex actually help you sell in real estate?

The short answer is No.

The long overly involved answer is “No, but… it certainly gets you noticed”, and any marketer worth his salt will at a minimum consider sex in every single marketing effort.  The really smart marketer will understand how to leverage sex (and other vices) in a way that directly connects to the audience’s trigger points, while telling the honest truth about the product or service.

So let’s get into it! *cracks knuckles*

1. I am a firm believer in the Cluetrain philosophy of marketing. That philosophy is fairly complex, but it can be reasonably summarized as, “Thou shalt not bullshit thy market”.

2. At the same time, I am a fairly big proponent of the 7DS method, which I’ve come up with about ten years ago. 7DS stands for Seven Deadly Sins, and the hypothesis is that all successful marketing campaigns (indeed, all successful businesses) appeal to one or more of the seven deadly sins: Pride, Gluttony, Envy, Vanity, Sloth, Wrath, and of course, Lust. The overall effectiveness of a campaign can often be increased by adding either depth of the appeal to a deadly sin, or adding another deadly sin. For example, showing someone eating a luscious cheeseburger is good (appeals to Gluttony), but showing a sexy woman eating a luscious cheeseburger is better (appeals to Gluttony and Lust). If you could work in some element of Envy — like having the sexy woman eat the luscious cheeseburger in a beautiful dining room filled with art — that’s even better still.

Yes, I know these two are in conflict and contradict each other… at least most of the time.

The real trick in marketing is to align the two as much as possible. Can you tell the truth about a product or service, but nonetheless appeal to one or more of the deadly sins? Now you’ve got the jackpot.

One of the finest practitioners of this eldritch craft is Apple. Their marketing never flagrantly feeds you bullshit. Their claims are all factually true. But combining their extremely elegant designs with visuals that can only be called ‘gadget porn’, Apple creates envy in those who don’t have (let’s say) an iPod, vanity in those who do, and lust in design nerds everywhere.

To do this effectively, the marketer must have a pretty deep understanding of the target audience, to know what makes that group tick, what emotional responses can be elicited, and how. The marketer has to know how to connect his product or service to that audience, while leveraging the seven deadly sins as elegantly as possible. This is, I believe, a subtle art. Banging someone over the head is usually ineffective, because it rings so false.

Showing half-naked women standing in front of a house is simply unnatural and immediately sets off warning bells in the viewer’s head: “I’m getting manipulated!” A more subtle approach might be something like this:

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This is subtle. It works. There’s no doubt that sex is being used effectively here. But the context of the property — a beachfront house, or a place with a swimming pool — takes it out of the realm of the too-obvious. The viewer’s reptilian brain is being engaged (if male or I suppose lesbian), and in the alternative, I could make a pretty strong case that Envy and Vanity are also being engaged no matter your sexual preference.

Even those on the lookout for such appeals have to admit that the images are very much in line with the no-bullshit clause: the picture is trying to promote a beachfront house, or a house with a pool.  There is no doubt that the house is by the beach, or has a pool.  No bullshit going on here.

As I mentioned above, even if you can’t pull off this combination of truthtelling with sex appeal (or vanity appeal, or envy appeal, or whatever-sin-appeal), a marketer should always consider whether sex should be used in marketing for the purpose of attracting attention.

The answer depends on a careful cost vs. benefit analysis of using sex in that way.  Because it’s such a powerful motivator, a fundamental human desire, using sex to get noticed is tricky business.

For one thing, using sex will absolutely get you noticed.  There’s just no question about it.  Go to any industry tradeshow and you can find booth bunnies whether the company sells plumbing products or high tech software.  Traffic to those booths with highly attractive women in them is measurably higher than those without.

Question is… what are you getting noticed for?  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

In some cases, it’s a good thing.  For example, if you’re in a strictly commodity business where differentiation is really, really difficult, then perhaps getting noticed for sex appeal isn’t a bad thing.  At least, the customer has noticed!  If there are a thousand real estate agents in your market, and you’ve got the looks and the bod… honestly, it might not be a bad thing to wear “form-enhancing” clothing to the office and to client meetings, as long as you can maintain professionalism in behavior, speech, and be taken seriously.

In many cases, however, it’s a bad thing to be noticed for sex, since it means the rest of your products and services have been completely overshadowed by the power of primal desire.  Plus, negative branding may attach to you or your company.  Long term brand advantages — images of professionalism, knowledge, expertise, etc. — may be shattered because you went for the T&A approach.

This got long.  But for some companies and individuals, using sex to sell real estate is an incredibly effective strategy — especially if it can be done in the context of never bullshitting your audience.  Sex will get you noticed from the faceless crowds.  Yet, the smart marketer will consider the tradeoff between long-term vs. short-term, image vs. attention, overall cost vs. overall benefit, before deciding to pull the trigger.

-rsh

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Rob Hahn
Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.