Sunday, December 4, 2005

Italianate Advertising

Here is a picture I took of the Tuscan countryside a couple of years ago:

It's beautiful, isn't it? Now here are some pictures of The Vineyards at Summerfield, NC, a new housing development:

The Vineyards at Summerfield is also nice, but in a very different kind of way.

So how in the world could anyone in her right mind write,

Inspired by the splendor of central Italy's glorious wine country, The Vineyards at Summerfield offers residents the grandeur of country living along with the conveniences of an urban location . . . . The Tuscan theme can be seen and felt throughout the community.

But Teresa Loflin ("Special to the News & Record") did write that in today's TriadHomes section of the News & Record, and every word of it is false, including and and the. And in addition to being false (and silly), it's puzzling.

Let's dispose of the false, silly parts first. (1) The grandeur of country living means Mr. Darcy at Pemberley, not Mr. Bank Vice-President in a subdivision of big houses on small lots. (2) The convenience of an urban location means you can walk to a restaurant, shop, or show -- not that you have a 30-minute commute down Battleground Avenue to get to work. (3) A Tuscan theme would seem to require some actual Tuscan architectural elements on the houses. But there are none, apparently, except for a terra-cotta roof on the clubhouse. Of course you can find those in Tucson, too -- so maybe if the Tuscan marketing doesn't work, the developer can try for a Southwest marketing campaign. (Or maybe he just got confused by the phonology of Tuscan / Tucson?)

Anyway, on to the puzzle. Houses in The Vineyards at Summerfield start at $500,000, which would indicate that the target buyers are not uneducated.

But what educated person is likely to be swayed in the slightest degree toward buying a house simply because a developer has slapped an ersatz Bella Tuscany marketing theme on what is a perfectly generic housing subdivision?

I mean really. My 16-year-old son Sam and his friend Neal burst out laughing when I showed them the N&R's photo of a row of tract mansions along an asphalt road, sporting the headline "Summerfield neighborhood provides Old-World elegance."

Better to name the subdivision after something you bulldozed to build it ("The Oaks at Summerfield"), or what your dog used to do there before you started building ("Bramble's Ramble"), or after the farmer who used to own the property ("Garrison's Glebe").

But let's leave Italy out of it, please.


Anonymous said...

You're too hard on them David. Obviously classics professors against sprawl and likely to know what the Tuscan countryside actually looks like are not the target market. Besides how many people who actually live in the Tuscan countryside have theaters with plush leather chairs, surround sound and popcorn machines?

David Wharton said...

That's kinda my point, David. Home theaters are great, and so are gourmet kitchens, master suites with spas, and walk-in closets big enough to park a car in.

So why not pitch the marketing to what the target audience really wants?

Or are you telling me that the homebuyers actually do buy into the goofy Tuscan marketing and believe they are moving into an Italian country village?

Roch101 said...

David, you've got it all wrong. This:

"Inspired by the splendor of central Italy's glorious wine country..."

simply means that the architechts were drunk on Chianti.

Rob Ainbinder said...


Who really buys that advertising bull? Maybe is "article" is more advertorial than, journalistic report?

Certainly, the more discriminating buyers see through any thinly veiled romantic notions about a developements "character". I would a home buyer in the $500K range *would be* more disciminating that to be romanced by a few pithy words about the N&R's weekly "featured community".

I would lean a little heavier on the Editor(s) as Teresa is a "hired gun" for the N&R and not staff.

Is this an excuse? Certainly, not but, perhaps the N&R is yielding to the wishes of it's customer (e.g. developer) by providing a little literary illustration.

I guess this is what happens when one's income is derived (in part) by the number of words written.

In the interest of full disclosure I have had professional dealings with Teresa through her non-profit work.

Anonymous said...

Hey, it's all in the way it's advertised. And I've found that a lot of people, espeically down here where we don't have too many sidewalks, actually think that a 30 minute commute is urban living. When I tell people that I hate the fact that I'm unable to walk to a grocery store or coffeehouse, they look at me like I'm nuts and inform me that in a mere 20 minutes I could drive to Tate Street and have all the coffee that I want. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Or are you telling me that the homebuyers actually do buy into the goofy Tuscan marketing and believe they are moving into an Italian country village?

They've got to be buying into something to pay almost $200/sf to live on a former tobacco farm in Summerfield.

Anonymous said...

So how in the world could anyone in her right mind write……Inspired by the splendor of central Italy's glorious wine country, The Vineyards at Summerfield offers residents the grandeur of country living along with the conveniences of an urban location . . . . The Tuscan theme can be seen and felt throughout the community.

David, this is hysterically funny, though I’m not puzzled. The explanation is easy, and it comes in two parts.

Part I – the real estate section is advertorial, as someone posted above- the articles wouldn’t exist without the need to break up pages of subdivisions to market to buyers.

Part II – More importantly, as a culture, regarding urban design, architectural heritage, and public space aesthetics, Americans are functionally illiterate.

Only 20% - 30% of Americans have passports. More likely than not, the people selling this stuff have never been to Tuscany, and the people buying it have never been to Tuscany. So who’s going to call them on it? You and a few others.

But I’d bet $10 that Ms. Loflin believes she’s in her right mind. In the American mind, even those that have never been to Tuscany know that it’s supposed to be some idyllic place. Why? We’re Americans. We may know jack squat about what Italy actually looks like, but we know our themes! We love theme parks, and theme destinations like Orlando, Vegas, and Branson, Mo.

So where do we learn our cultural themes about Italy? Chain dining, of course, which as a business proposition, is all but impossible without themes. We go to Carrabba’s or the Olive Garden, and we order the Tuscan T-Bone, or get a side of Tuscan potatoes, and smack our chops over Specialties inspired by the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, our cooking school in Italy.

Through these cues and the beautiful, photo-rich cookbooks at chain bookstores such as Border’s, many Americans who would never think of actually leaving the country on vacation know that Tuscany is somehow identified with the good life.

As for the advertised conveniences of an “urban” location in a place called SUMMER FIELD, again, Ms. Loflin is expressing the dominant view of the urban/non-urban dichotomy in America today, which is informed by a suburban perspective and can be roughly described as:

Cows/tractors/agriculture allowed and not entirely rare = Not Urban
Anywhere else where you can drive less than 15 minutes, park your car for free and walk for 30 seconds to eat a steak in a room with cheerfully painted walls and a theme = Urban

Ultimately, I read this ad as a symptom of a culture that is mostly deprived of quality neighborhoods. It’s a siren song to homeowners who have some money and are dying to live in a place with more meaning than what they feel they’re getting now. Of course, the only thing with added meaning here is in the marketing.

“Come to Summer Field! Feel The THEME!*”

*Theme comes with 90-day limited warranty. Theme may end abruptly when adjacent property is developed into standard commercially zoned big box/strip center. Two copies of Frances Mayes “Under the Tuscan Sun” complimentary with new home purchase.

Plenty of people who feel like something’s missing on their current cul-de-sac will go out to this place and buy into the development. Some of them will believe the marketing, and experience a new level of self-satisfaction because they live in a “Tuscan” neighborhood. Others will find that a year or two down the road, things haven’t really changed, and they’ll wonder why, and begin turning to the ads in the paper again, but they won’t necessarily be equipped to find a better place, because their experience is dominated by living in/visiting places that don’t work.

Anna Haynes said...

Highly recommended -
The Broken Wall; newspaper coverage of its advertisers ("How newspapers are selling their credibility to advertisers"; recounts actual cases)
(Blake Fleetwood, Washington Monthly, Sept 1999, according to the webpage cite)

Can't remember whose blog I ran across it on, else would credit the source. Really.

Vada Bostian said...

Remember that the word "article" contains the word "art."

Anonymous said...

"The Broken Wall" was linked to from this Slashdot thread on A Recipe for Newspaper Survival in the Internet Age


Brian said...

I'll chime in with a quote from Seth Godin: "Successful marketers don't talk about features or even benefits. Instead, they tell a story. A story we want to believe." (source: All Marketers Are Liars).

Tuscany is a story. And people want to believe it. So they/we aren't only easy to lie to, we almost demand to be lied to.

David Wharton said...

Wow, great comments, everybody. Lots better than my post. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

But doesnt that clay tile roof on the clubhouse look really great. Granted it may be the only thing tuscan about the development but it does look very nice.

Anonymous said...

I realize this is an old blog but I found it as I was looking for information about our neighborhood on Google.

As homeowners in The Vineyards at Summerfield, the name of the subdivision had no relevance to our decision in relocating our family here. Important factors were large common areas, a variety of amenities, direct access to walking trails including access to the Lake Brandt Greenway trail system, wonderful wildlife and ponds.

We had a wonderful breakfast just this morning watching the deer in our backyard.

A home is typically an individual's largest investment; therefore, investment economics also play an important role in a home purchase. Since buying our home in The Vineyards 2 years ago, our value has increased over 15% per year.

The fact that the subdivion was located near highly-rated schools (including private institutions) was also important to our family. We feel strongly about living in a place (if possible) where there are several options in educating our children.

We can see your point in The Vineyards name not being directly related to the purpose of the land in the past nor currently. However, if you took a poll of the homeowners here, most likely no one purchased the land due to the name.

Another little fact is that a large vineyard is located near our subdivision that produces wine for Childress Vineyards - about a mile away from the subdivision. It is not part of The Vineyards at Summerfield subdivision; however I find it interesting that there is a presumption that Summerfield is solely an agricultural (with some commercial) area which is not the case. It is more than just farmland.

Also, having a home in excess of $500,000 does not mean that a person is more or less educated than someone with a home of lesser or greater value.

Anonymous said...

I realize that this reply is being posted years after the initial post. I cannot help to comment.

As a resident of Summerfield myself, I appreciate what Ms. Wainscott:
"Also, having a home in excess of $500,000 does not mean that a person is more or less educated than someone with a home of lesser or greater value."

Does she really believe this? Because the majority (but NOT ALL) of the people who purchase the homes in what I call "Yankee Housing Farms" truly do not believe the people living in homes outside of their own neighborhoods are equal to those in the more costly homes.

I'd like to remind folks that it is true that not everyone living in the more costly subdivisions of our community are more educated. . . Quite often, a lot of the natives of the area and of North Carolina are just as educated if not more so. It's just that "outsiders" can transplant "down here" and get more for the dollar than they did in the place from which they come. I just pray that they will not do to our communities what they so badly desired to leave up north or out west.

Oftentimes, neighborhoods are sold as an image for the image conscious. Take Henson Forest: it's supposedly more "outdoorsy" than Henson Farms which evokes more agri-rural, pastoral farm images. But truly, how many of those residents are truly rugged, outdoorsy people? Most of them might shop at REI and buy the image of outdoorsy people, but the closest many of them might come to "roughing it" is hiking in Asheville after a night in a B&B. . . or "camping" in a diesel motorhome.

As for The Vineyards, they give out whole, regular-sized candy bars at Halloween. Just don't run through their flower beds, kids!