Sex may sell, but it won’t save the housing market

Britain’s booming housing market is being kept at an artificially high level because of those with a vested interest talking up property prices, says George Pitcher

A while ago, there was a poster hoarding in south London featuring a raven-haired temptress, wearing only gossamer knickers and advertising “London’s sexiest new property development”, or some such. I think there was a version with a muscle-bound hunk too, to be sure we weren’t playing gender politics.

Now I notice the Financial Times is carrying a half-page ad in its property section for 12 elegant, Georgian-style properties, the images of which are little larger than the average business card. The ad is dominated by a picture of an elegant blonde woman in a low-cut bodice, throwing her head back over a chair in closed-eyed rapture. This ad reminded me of a similar job from a brewer recently, which showed a woman clutching bed-sheets to her breast and throwing her head back into her pillow in a transport of delight. The copy-line said something about things getting better if we took longer to do them.

To put this as delicately as possible, we were invited to suppose that the photo had been judiciously cropped – to spare her blushes, as it were. The fact that I can’t remember which beer was being advertised (though, in fairness, I remember the woman) speaks volumes, perhaps, for the ineffectiveness of this sort of advertising – for a middle-aged beer-drinker, at any rate.

I imagine the same assumption is being made in the FT ad for new properties in Fulham. We are being invited to assume that it’s not only the town houses that are in “an extraordinary setting”.

Now, I would be ludicrously otherworldly to suggest that it’s some kind of new development for sex to be used to sell things. The motor industry has been doing it for decades. And the booze industry, despite attempts at regulating promises of sexual prowess out of its advertising claims, has also continued to do so – as our bedbound brewery heroine demonstrated.

But it is a relatively new phenomenon for estate agents – in the case I cite, it’s posh purveyor Knight Frank – to associate houses with sexual acts. If nothing else, it brings a whole new set of very worrying implications to phrases such as “early viewing recommended” and “needs some improvement”.

The more serious consideration is that people who are likely to spend upwards of £2m for a London home are more likely to conduct a full structural survey of the flesh on offer than they are of the property itself.

I believe there is a central marketing flaw here. Marketers of premium property are increasingly joining the ranks of consumer-product manufacturers and suggesting that these homes are sexy. There is, of course, an alternative view: no, they’re not.

Admittedly, that central truth has never discouraged marketers from deploying sexual appetite to sell products, from lawnmowers to toothpaste. But it may be that that this relatively new development in the residential property market is not only distorting perceptions – which is what this kind of advertising is entirely about in any kind of market – but is distorting the market itself.

As in any offer where sexual allure is deployed as the promise, that offer is all talk and no substance. How could it be otherwise? A Georgian-style town house does not really come with a ravishing, compliant woman as a fixture and fitting.

This may not matter where the product is a motor car or a beer. They are not assets on which the health of the economy seriously depends. They are simply products – to be driven and swallowed. But many fewer cars and beers will be bought if the prices of consumers’ principal asset – their homes – collapse.

The growing deployment of sex in property advertising is symptomatic of developers and their agents talking up the property market to prices as over-inflated as the models they use.

And the latest seductive talk of virility in the housing market comes from the Halifax, the UK’s largest mortgage-lender. Wales, we are told, is at the centre of the “property boom”, with house-price inflation running at 59 per cent. Meanwhile, Widnes in Cheshire is running at 68 per cent.

I have two objections to mortgage-lenders such as the Halifax talking the market up and keeping it up. The first is based on anecdotal evidence – friends from various parts of the country tell me that they have put their houses on the market at these “booming” prices and no one has come to view them. It seems to me that houses are only worth these prices if the market is prepared to pay them. All the rest is talk.

Secondly, the providers of endowments on which such mortgages are secured, from Eagle Star to Zurich Life, are constantly calculating shortfalls on returns from equity-linked policies.

This means that the equity markets, on which the property markets have been “booming”, have not been booming themselves in order to support the mortgages on highly priced properties.

The retail markets have continued to be buoyant – September showed a 2.1 per cent like-for-like growth in shop sales – but this feel-good factor is notoriously sensitive to house prices, the equities markets that support them (or fail to) and, heaven forfend, the negative equity in property-ownership that follows over-selling and over-inflation.

No implicit promises of sexual prowess will help this market – and the economy it supports – if it goes limp.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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