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Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005

MEDIA MIX

Desperate drones are content to be 'conned' into buying a condo


As long as I've lived in Tokyo I've received phone calls from condominium salespeople. In the past, these solicitations seemed accidental, as if the salespeople had dialed my number at random. But in the last five years the calls have been more deliberate. The salespeople know where I live -- not just my neighborhood, but the building itself. They also seem to have a good idea of how much rent I pay.

At first, I thought it was creepy, but lately I've come to accept it. These salespeople are only doing their job, and they're doing it well, though I still wonder what kind of resources they tap to get the information they do. The change in tactics is not merely the result of better sales techniques. It is a reflection of the changing character of the Tokyo condominium market.

This is best reflected in the use of advertising. Ten years ago, most condominiums were no more than 10 or 12 stories. Advertising was done locally with flyers. Now the market is dominated by huge high-rises that contain up to a thousand or more apartments. The pressure on developers to recoup their investment as quickly as possible is great. Hence the need to turn to more sophisticated promotion methods.

The most prominent is using famous people in television commercials. Once upon a time, the only commercials you'd see for condominiums were generic ads for housing companies like Caesar. Now, you see expensive commercials with celebrities shilling for individual condo projects.

The oddest campaigns are those featuring foreign celebrities. Last year, French actor Jean Reno appeared in a commercial for a high-rise in Kinshicho. Reno was shown relaxing in a yukata, while the catch copy had him reflecting on the joys of "going home to Shitamachi," the homey downtown residential area of Tokyo where Kinshicho is located. As one blogger succinctly put it, there is something ridiculous about the idea of Jean Reno not only buying a condo in Shitamachi, but choosing to live there full-time.

Slightly more credible was the implication of a campaign featuring Richard Gere for a development project centering on The Tokyo Towers in the waterfront district, an area that has recently seen high-rises popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Gere is shown doing exciting things like playing the piano in front of a spectacular city view, or driving around under glittering neon lights.

Unlike the Reno CM, the ad doesn't try to give the impression that Gere lives in Tokyo, only that he would like to. The viewer is thus invited to imagine that The Tokyo Towers is the kind of place he'd choose to reside, meaning upscale and exclusive.

However, there's a problem with this sort of logic. If a property were truly upscale and exclusive, it wouldn't be advertised on television to the masses.

The prices for these high-rise condos start in the 40-50 million yen range, which makes them affordable to salaried workers. The main attraction is their close proximity to central Tokyo, but they are on average much cheaper than the truly exclusive condos in Roppongi Hills. Because the developers of these new high-rises also want to attract families and retired people, they include common facilities such as day-care centers, clinics and retail outlets. They are in a real sense self-contained villages that can have as many as 5,000 people living in them.

However, advertisements don't dwell on this community idea. Instead they emphasize personal luxury. Print ads feature spectacular, unobstructed views and huge living spaces. Some condos even offer the services of "party consultants" who can show residents how to throw elegant get-togethers. Even if you aren't a celebrity, you can feel like one.

Basically, these new skyscraper condominiums try to put a fashionable, high-class face on the kind of beehive situation common to Japanese urban life, and that face costs money. The promotional expenses -- the advertising, the model rooms, the sales army's salaries -- are passed on to the people who buy the condominiums.

A real-estate professional who runs a blog called "Wish Comes True" questioned this "image strategy" and states that there is a huge difference in quality between the kind of condo that a Japanese celebrity lives in and the condos they are selling. She also says she heard that one developer paid 50 million yen for a famous person or persons to appear in a commercial for a particular condo, and determined that this payment was equivalent to the combined selling price of 12 units, which, since the building contains a thousand units, is a mere drop in the bucket.

Japanese celebrities currently plugging condos include actress Hitomi Kuroki, who is extremely popular among young housewives. Kuroki appears in a commercial for a Toyosu development project that has barely even started. She's shown standing in a vacant lot discussing future amenities with a developer. "Will it have an aesthetic salon?" she squeals. "Of course," says her hard-hatted host. Maybe the most expensive ad is the one for Shibaura Island featuring all five members of the idol group SMAP. Their fee could easily top 500 million yen.

Is it worth it? Earlier this summer, The Tokyo Towers, which won't be completed until 2007, put 200 units on sale and they were snapped up in no time. That means people are willing to make down payments on condos they haven't seen yet based on elaborately furnished model rooms and advertisements. Once they do move in they'll face a 35-year mortgage, an immediate drop in property value, and management fees that are almost as high as the monthly rent payments they wanted to escape when they bought their condo. The dream is always better than the reality.



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