Under the Influence

Why realtors use photos of themselves as marketing

Most agents will tell you it's all about branding. If potential buyers and sellers see your face often enough in the neighbourhood, they assume you're successful and give you a call. But there is another theory. And it circles back to the early days of the real estate business.
With 120,000 realtors, there's a lot of competition out there. That's why a big part of a broker's job is to brand oneself. (Steve Bruce/CBC)
Listen to the full episode27:28
The world of Real Estate Marketing has its own rules, its own techniques and its own unique breed of salespeople. It's a form of marketing that touches all of us and it usually involves the biggest purchase of our lives.

The very first advertising agency on record was started by a real estate man named Volney Palmer.

When his Philadelphia business started to suffer during the Great Panic of 1837, he looked to expand his services in order to keep his real estate business afloat. So he began a coal supply service and advertising agency.

It was a strange pairing – but the coal business introduced him to other business people, and Palmer started booking advertising space for them in newspapers. By 1845, he abandoned real estate and the coal business and was opening advertising agencies in Boston and New York – and the advertising agency concept was born.

The 120,000 real estate agents in Canada spent approximately $625M on advertising last year, and the 1.9 million agents in the States spend approximately $13.6B.

How real estate agents advertise has always been interesting.

For starters, it's curious that most agents insist on putting their faces on their business cards, on their lawn signs, on billboards and in newspaper ads.

Real estate is a service business. But so are advertising practitioners, doctors and accountants, but few people would hire an advertising copywriter, a physician or an accountant based on the way they look on their business cards.

Most agents will tell you that it's all about branding.

If potential buyers and sellers see your face often enough in the neighbourhood, they assume you're successful and will give you a call. Or, that a picture is worth a thousand words.

But there is another theory. And it circles back to the early days of the real estate business.

It's about trust.

In those early days, the industry was rampant with scam artists. Con men who didn't want their pictures published. But legitimate brokers did.

That accountability meant they weren't fly-by-night operators.

So maybe – deep in the DNA of the real estate business – springs an ongoing desire to be respected and trusted.

In the business of trust, a face is a powerful card to play. It's about integrity.

Brokers are often the butt of jokes on that issue to this very day, as seen on the Simpson's when Marge begins working for a real estate company and her boss is explaining what "real estate truth" is:

Now, not everyone is blessed with an attractive, trustworthy face.

Three American universities collaborated on a study recently to ascertain how much physical attractiveness contributed to the success of a real estate agent.

They asked 402 people to look at photographs of agents and rate them from 1-to-10 on physical attractiveness.

Researchers then compared those results to the MLS data for each of those agents – looking at listing prices versus sales prices.

They found that agents who were rated more attractive had listings with higher selling prices and higher commissions.

The universities said the study confirmed their theory that physical attractiveness is related to productivity in the workplace and to many of the choices people make.

But here was the interesting side note: Less attractive agents had lower selling prices but more listings and more sales. Which one could interpret to mean they worked harder. Attractive people used their beauty in place of other work skills. Less attractive people simply rolled up their sleeves.

There is a realtor named Cotty Lowry who began advertising his face on a billboard in the town he lives in.

Minneapolis realtor Cotty Lowry uses the vandalism of his own signs to his advantage. (Image Source: cotty.com)

Great location. Great visibility. Great neighbourhood.

Three weeks after the billboard was put up, it was covered in graffiti. Someone drew big glasses on Lowry, a big nose and a silly moustache. So it was replaced with a new billboard. It was vandalized within a week - this time with big ears, crazy eyes and horns.

This continued over and over again.

Then the most interesting thing happened. The cycle of vandalized billboards started to make the real estate agent famous. People looked forward to the fresh graffiti. Everybody knew his name. His business flourished.

Fourteen years later, it's still working for Cotty Lowry. As a matter of fact, he was vacationing north of the Arctic Circle recently, and someone across the room recognized him from the billboards.

You never know what will work in marketing.


For more stories about Real Estate Advertising, click or tap the "Listen" tab above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.


Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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(Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)