I love shopping cart ads

She posed atop the pool’s steel ladder. Glistening water droplets beaded across her oily, tanned flesh. Her bikini top strained to contain its augmented cargo.

A few feet away, a bulldog wearing shades stood gazing up at her. Above him, a thought bubble read: She’s so hot.

This image appeared on a massive billboard along one of southern California’s busiest highways. The bold tagline read: My clients come first.


Billboards. Shopping carts. Matchbooks. Double trucks. Bus benches. Tiny classified ads penned in acronyms and glib slogans. Weekly rags we typically fetch from shallow puddles at the end of our driveways.  

These were real estate’s go-to marketing mediums. Each possessed so much possibility that few if any brands capitalized on.

As I drove past the Realtor bombshell billboard, I asked myself the obvious question: What was she selling? Every answer I came up with would have probably shocked, if not offended her.
I recalled my early days at Y&R and the methodologies I learned that defined how we created campaigns that mattered.


A two-way mirror separated the creative team from a room with 15 focus group subjects. A moderator led them through a series of scripted exercises. We sat behind the mirror and observed.

The exercises were designed to delve deep into what motivates a consumer to use a particular product. In this case, it was a nationally known dish soap brand.

The questions focused on the subjects’ feelings about dish soap. Their likes, dislikes and needs. The brand’s staff had their own sense of why they believed people should use their product, but our job was to uncover the consumer’s point of view. That’s what ultimately mattered. It offered a far better roadmap to follow than simply making shit up.

We then went to work building consumer personas and journeys to help us understand who we were messaging to and how. We gave these personas names, ages and stories. This made it a lot easier to write ads that felt more like personal missives than sales pitches.

That was then. Early 1980s. It’s shaped everything I have done since.


That billboard ad was either a culmination of a focus group of 16 year-old males or it was conjured up from a twisted sense of how to market and build a personal brand.

Two really awkward ways to present oneself to the world. Especially something as important and respectable as a real estate agent.


Real estate marketing lives at polar ends of a spectrum. Outlandish at one end – cold, lifeless, corporate and generic at the other.

No middle.

Most of real estate marketing detours around the fundamental practice of understanding the recipient’s point of view, needs or desires. Instead it serves only what the marketer wants people to know. The things the company or agent believes are important.

This might explain why most real estate marketing and advertising is ineffective. It’s not the mediums that don’t work. It’s the message.

Consider the shopping cart – a popular advertising medium in real estate that many like to criticize as ineffective and untrackable. Most real estate shopping cart ads typically display some sort of picture of an agent standing with her arms tightly folded looking nothing like she does in real life.

But had they instead carried a message that struck a real chord with people in the moment when they were shopping for groceries, we’d probably have a different opinion of these ads. A grocery cart gives you upwards of 45 minutes with a consumer – far more than a Twitter ad, which flashes by in a second.

Missed opportunities abound.  


Something sacred is missing from real estate marketing.

In 2012, the Cleveland Clinic produced this short movie as a way to share their story. While it wasn’t their intention, this video stands as a vivid tutorial that taps into a marketing workhorse: empathy.

Without any dialogue, the Cleveland Clinic managed to expose the needs, feelings, thoughts and concerns of people within the clinic, including employees, patients and their guests. They managed to connect to the viewer through a strong display of empathy.

Empathy is the element that exists in products and services that feel extra special in ways others do not. It’s what good marketers employ to craft words that jump off a page and make our hearts skip a beat.

Empathy is the most honest expression of our humanity. We all possess it. Real estate marketing rarely engages it.

We’re number one in our market. We’re the biggest. We’re the greatest. We’re so hot.

Me. Me. Me.

What’s missing is the inclusion of them. The intended audience. Their story is rarely told. Their feelings rarely explored, expressed or considered.

You want your billboard to stop traffic. You want to make that irreplaceable connection through a bus bench ad. You want to strike connections through a matchbook, or generate a serious click-through an ad. Start by placing yourself in the consumer’s mind.

And stay there a while.