Slate's Ad Report Card: The Century 21 Harpy

Slate advertising critic Seth Stevenson grades the latest commercials from real estate company Century 21, which feature a nagging wife and an agent listening in to what should be a private conversation.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now, our regular look at the business of advertising. Seth Stevenson is ad critic for the online magazine Slate. His readers told him about a new TV. spot for a real estate giant. Seth's verdict: this property should be condemned.

Mr. SETH STEVENSON (Ad Critic, Slate Magazine): These are fearful, uncertain times for real estate agents. It's not just that the housing market seems poised for a dip, it's that the real estate agent's very purpose has come into question. Homebuyers have discovered they can use the web to scout out listings on their own. Meanwhile, sellers are demanding flat-rate deals and ala carte services in an attempt to minimize the agent's cut.

People are starting to wonder, why do I need a real estate agent at all? Enter Century 21's new ad campaign, titled Agents of Change. It includes several, inoffensive spots showing real estate agents giving helpful advice and even bear hugs, but there's one ad titled The Debate that's definitely not inoffensive.

(Soundbite of television commercial)

Unidentified Man: (In commercial clip) That's not the point. The ...

Unidentified Woman #1: (In commercial clip) What is the point? What? I love that house.

Mr. STEVENSON: We fade in on a couple standing in their kitchen, arguing about whether to buy a new house. The wife is the aggressor. The husband has his doubts.

Unidentified Woman #1: (In commercial clip) Plus the schools.

Unidentified Man: (In commercial clip) The kids are three and one.

Unidentified Woman #1: (In commercial clip) They're going to grow up. What? Susanne researched this.

Mr. STEVENSON: Just as we're wondering who Susanne is, the ad cuts to an image of the couple's kitchen telephone, and we hear their real estate agent over the speaker.

Unidentified Woman #2: (In commercial clip) This listing is special, John. You guys can do this.

Unidentified Woman #1: (In commercial clip) We can do this.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Unidentified Woman #1: (In commercial clip) Are you kidding me? This is awesome!

Unidentified Man: (In commercial clip) You know the size of that garage?

Unidentified Woman #1: (In commercial clip) Yes!

Unidentified Woman #2: (In commercial clip) Oh, that's great! Now let me get to work.

Mr. STEVENSON: Cut to a picture of the agent's Century 21 business card. I've gotten a few e-mails about this ad, all of them negative. One of my readers called the ad creepy. Another asked me to explain why a husband bullying her husband would make me want to buy a house. Frankly, I can't explain it. The ad is terrifying. The problem really lies in the performances. That beleaguered husband, doe-faced and weary, seems highly sympathetic as he expresses a few misgivings about this major life decision.

Meanwhile, the wife, who looks like a more hostile Mary Louise Parker, though she lacks MLP's patented bone-dry delivery, just knits her eyebrows at the guy like he's unfathomably dense. Later, she jabs him with an accusatory, "What?"

Unidentified Woman #1: What?

Mr. STEVENSON: Her eyes wide and wild, her neck muscles flexed, her head twitching in disbelief at what a ninny her husband's turned out to be. The capper comes when their real estate agent, who we discover has been listening in on what should be a private and delicate moment, takes sides with the wife, and thereby crumbles the husband's defenses.

Unidentified Woman #2: (In commercial clip) You guys can do this.

Unidentified Woman #1: We can do this.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Mr. STEVENSON: Since this family seems open to outside advice, I'll give mine. Don't listen to her, John. Of course your real estate agent wants you to buy a house you can't afford. She gets a bigger commission. I give the ad a C-.

The other spots in the campaign are a little better. One features a single mother unpacking boxes in her new home while her real estate agent plays with her daughter nearby.

Unidentified Woman #3: That is stunning! You gotta put that on the fridge.

Mr. STEVENSON: But thoughtful gestures and congenial chitchat are not services worth thousands of dollars. Much better would have been a campaign that portrayed these agents as shrewd negotiators, or sharp assessors of a home's true market value. Those are the skills people might be willing to fork over that 6 percent for.

(Soundbite of music)

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Opinion from Seth Stevenson. He writes The Ad Report Card column for the online magazine Slate, and you can see the Century 21 ad at Slate.com.

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