The nasty wife in the Century 21 ad.

Advertising deconstructed.
April 10 2006 12:14 PM

The Nastiest Wife on Television

An odd new ad from Century 21.

The Spot:A title card reads "The Debate." 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. "Suzanne researched this," says the wife in exasperation. As we're wondering who Suzanne is, the ad cuts to an image of the couple's kitchen telephone. "This listing is special, John," says the voice of their real estate agent over the speakerphone. "You guys can do this." The husband caves. "This is awesome," says the wife. We see a picture of the agent's Century 21 business card.

(Click here to see the ad.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Century 21: Agents of Change. Click here to see the ad.
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I've gotten a few e-mails about this ad—all of them negative. One of my readers called the ad "creepy." Another felt that the wife in the spot "comes off as a nagging harpy." And a third asked me to explain "why a woman bullying her husband would make me want to buy a house."

This ad shows up at a fearful, uncertain time 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 is coming into question. Home-buyers have discovered they can use the Web to scout out listings on their own. Meanwhile, sellers are demanding flat-rate deals and a la 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 campaign, titled "Agents of Change." The initial salvo includes this spot and five others and began airing on television in March. Among the other spots are "Single Mom" (Century 21's description: "A single mother unpacks boxes in her new home while her real estate agent plays with her daughter nearby") and "Empty Nest" ("[It] begins with an older couple … talking about the house they are trying to sell and the memories they have made in the house. Their real estate agent tells them that they get to take their memories with them").

With the exception of "The Debate," which I'll get to in a moment, the ads are basically inoffensive. But they're also ineffective. We're still left wondering why a real estate agent is necessary, as the ads fail to show agents providing any useful, specialized services.

Sure, it's great when an agent becomes a pal and confidante, consoles you with tender notions about "memories," or (as happens in the spot titled "First-Time Buyers") hands over your new house keys, says "Welcome home," and gives you a big bear hug. 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.

As for "The Debate": It's terrifying. The problem lies in the performances. That beleaguered husband, dough-faced and weary, seems highly sympathetic as he expresses a few doubts 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?!"—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. Don't listen to her, John. Of course your agent wants you to buy a house you can't afford—she gets a bigger commission!

Grade: C-. My favorite spot in the campaign is the one called "The Big Move," in which a Chinese family is greeted at an airport by their American real estate agent. First of all, the ad presents a situation (the family has bought a house in the United States, over the Web, sight unseen) in which a professional agent on the ground might actually be of use (dealing with legally sensitive procedures in an unfamiliar country, for example). But I also like the mood of the ad. The family is waiting expectantly to see their new house for the first time. The agent has troubled himself to learn a trace of Chinese. It's all very sweetly optimistic—especially at a time when we're fiercely debating how to keep immigrants out.

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