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A Lesson in Copywriting from Real Estate (by Way of Freakonomics)

November 29, 2009 1 comment

I have been reading Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner, and kicking myself for not reading it earlier. A discussion begins on page 67 (in the Revised and Expanded edition) of word choice in real estate ads. The authors reveal that ads containing subjective and unquantifiable adjectives (no matter how positive they sound) tend to drive down the price of a home, while ads that clearly list a house’s features lead to a higher sale price.

As information goes, such terms are specific and straightforward—and therefore pretty useful, If you like granite, you might like the house; but even if you don’t, “granite” certainly doesn’t connote a fixer-upper. Nor does “gourmet or “state-of-the-art,” both of which seem to tell a buyer that a house is, on some level, truly fantastic.

“Fantastic,” meanwhile, is a dangerously ambiguous adjective, as is “charming.” Both these word seem to be real-estate agent code for a house that doesn’t have many specific attributes worth describing. “Spacious” homes, meanwhile, are often decrepit or impractical. “Great neighborhood” signals a buyer that, well, this house isn’t very nice but others nearby may be. And an exclamation point in a real-estate ad is bad news for sure, a bid to paper over real shortcomings with false enthusiasm.

If you study the words in ads for a real-estate agent’s own home, meanwhile, you see that she indeed emphasizes descriptive terms (especially “new,” “granite,” “maple,” and “move-in condition”) and avoids empty adjectives (including “wonderful,” “immaculate,” and the telltale “!”). Then she patiently waits for the best buyer to come along.

This is something for copywriters and editors to consider in any industry. Potential customers that know what they are looking for need to know what they’re getting: They want a clear description of a product or service and not a litany of vague adjectives.

[Gary Reichardt]