StreetEasy’s Ad Campaign Is Neocolonialist Propaganda For The Seamless Generation


StreetEasy has all but usurped the apartment-finding role once held by Craigslist and, before that, by rushing out to pick up the Voice on Tuesday nights before your fellow would-be renters. Ever since the site launched its first subway ad campaign two years ago, the website has tried to position itself as your hip friend who will tell you the ins and outs of navigating the New York housing market. Two years ago, it was trafficking in homespun knowledge (“The only bad thing about a walk-up is every single step”); last year’s “Find Your Formula” campaign used StreetEasy’s search check boxes to lay out rental dilemmas as algebra: “West Village + Outdoor Space + Washer/Dryer = +4 Roommates.”

All this was partly amusing, partly annoying, as most subway ads end up being. But StreetEasy’s latest ad campaign, “Find Your Place” — designed by Office of Baby, the same ad start-up that did “Find Your Formula” — goes a step further, implicitly commanding you to be the kind of New Yorker who not just lives down to all the worst stereotypes of hipsters, millennials, and urban pioneers but revels in them. It is shelter-as-conspicuous consumption, neocolonialist propaganda for the Girls age, swathed in just enough low-hanging-fruit humor to make it go down easy, if you don’t think too hard about it.

An incomplete sampling — there seems to be no end to them — of 2017 StreetEasy ads, and how each of them hates humanity:

[Sublet] helps me cling to the idea that I’ll quit my job and travel soon.

The basic premise here is simple — if you cannot commit, sublets are for you — but whatever copywriter actually came up with this phrasing (and whichever StreetEasy exec approved it) is clearly working out some issues. That “cling to” turns this from a dream to a nightmare of lost hopes, one that you should really give up on as soon as you can, because New York, already.

I prefer a [Dishwasher] to a [Washer/dryer] because you can’t send dishes out and have them come back clean.

Because the highest aspiration of all true New Yorkers is to total laziness, where either machines or minimum-wage humans do all your dirty work for you. This entry is the StreetEasy companion to those Seamless ads that assume that actually making a phone call and speaking to a human being isn’t worth your time, let alone buying food and cooking it yourself.

I rented [West Village $3,000+] in hopes I could become the kind of person who could afford [West Village $3,000+].

If modern consumer capitalism has a credo, it would be aspirationalism, the notion that you shouldn’t pay what you can afford for things, but rather what you think you should be able to afford. Via this alchemy, overpaying for an apartment becomes not a sign of the unfairness of the New York housing and labor markets, but a way of changing your identity: I pay $3,000 a month for my apartment, eat that, college friends who still live in Iowa and can afford houses. It’s the fundamental reason why supply and demand has broken down as a means of setting prices, and why an ice cream cone now costs $7. (Look at me, I can eat $7 ice cream cones — single scoop. Suck it!) Equally accurate phrasing: “I rented a West Village $3,000+ because I wanted to feel like a success, and now the former tenant is living in a refrigerator carton under the FDR Drive.”

We’re hoping [Open space] keeps our kids happy enough that we don’t have to move to the ’burbs.

This is a tricky one to unpack, so bear with us: Why do people move to the suburbs? Because they grow up, get married, have kids, then want those kids to have the room to wander freely and you can’t do that in a floor-through, so off to Maplewood it is. (This is an anachronistic image in the age of the Great Inversion, mind you, but let’s roll with it.) But hey, what if you could have a little piece of suburbia in your own backyard? One where your kids don’t have to go play in a public park with the common folk? Maybe little Conor and Morgan could put up with that for a while.

Interestingly, “open space” doesn’t actually appear to be a real option on StreetEasy’s search form, so Office of Baby was clearly given free range to go full alternative-facts in the cause of parental-stereotype humor.

I was [Only pre-war buildings], then I lived in one, and now I’m [Only new buildings].

This is a weird one, since “pre-war apartment” has long been a signifier of ceiling height and general non-crappy construction. (A recently expanded building on the Upper West Side used to advertise itself as “21st-century pre-war apartments,” which always made me wonder what they knew that the rest of us didn’t.) Instead, this ad tries to instill a new common wisdom: Modern construction is the best, because who wants to live in something old? This is a perspective mostly held by real estate developers and people who have never been to New York before, which, come to think of it, is likely a fair description of StreetEasy’s target demographic — and certainly that of Zillow, the real estate website that purchased StreetEasy in 2013.

My roommate and I are thinking of becoming lovers so we can search for [1 bedroom] instead of [2 bedrooms].

This is the only ad in the entire series to so much as nod at the desperation that underlies the New York housing search process, and it buries it under a fog of creepiness. Points for being gender- and sexuality-neutral, though!

My girlfriend works off the [1] and I work off the [4] so we compromised and live off the [1].

The ladies, amirite?

[Laundry in building] changed the way I think about how often to wash sheets.

It’s OK to live like a 12-year-old boy. Take pride in it.

Put it all together, and it’s the perfect storm of classism and sexism, all wrapped up in real estate–porn cellophane. We have housing to meet your every need, the ads say, so long as you’re mostly concerned with how to spend as much as your budget can afford to support your lifestyle, and really, aren’t we all?

“Our current Out of Home campaign is focused on the notion that the real estate search in NYC isn’t finite – New Yorkers are always discovering new neighborhoods and facets of the city,” Peter Edwards, StreetEasy’s senior director of marketing and analytics, told the Voice in a statement. “As their lives in New York evolve, so do their real estate needs. As the real estate marketplace built specifically for NYC, StreetEasy is uniquely positioned to meet those changing needs through NYC-centric options ranging from ‘Pets Allowed’ and ‘Laundry in Building’ to filtering for specific school zoning.”

Edwards notes that StreetEasy has expanded its ad placement this year both by taking out ads for longer time periods and by posting more ads outside Manhattan.

“What StreetEasy’s ad campaign overlooks is that for most tenants, finding a well-maintained apartment in New York City is like navigating through a minefield,” says Aaron Carr, a former state assembly staffer who last year launched the tenant-support organization Housing Rights Initiative. “According to public records, there are over 2 million open housing maintenance violations in New York City. For many, finding an array of amenities is secondary to avoiding mice, mold, and hypothermia.”

There’s no pulldown for “hot water doesn’t regularly cut out” on StreetEasy’s site, significantly. (A start-up competitor, Rentlogic, allows searching by letter grades based on the number of violations a building has received.) But then, you wouldn’t want to be one of those people, would you?