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When open houses aren't enough: Realtors, developers shell out for celebrities

Let's say you're at an open house and you bump into a celebrity. Don't worry: The "star" is there to influence you to buy, not to compete for the property.

Karin Wolok shares a photo with Talib Kweli at #SomersSocial open house.
Karin Wolok shares a photo with Talib Kweli at #SomersSocial open house.Read moreInstagram user @hellojewfro

They've invaded your television commercials, your radio ads, and more recently, your Facebook and Instagram.

They sponsor everything from beauty products to coconut water, even antivirus software and, er, Pepsi.

They're #sponsored celebrities, and they're on virtually every platform these days, selling and promoting products and experiences. And although they might be able to nudge you toward buying that new shade of lipstick or a designer watch, could a celebrity persuade you to buy or rent your next home?

In Philadelphia and across the country, developers and marketers are banking on that answer being yes. Long gone are the days when freshly baked cookies and a crackling fireplace were all it took to make a buyer swoon at an open house. Now, real estate professionals are relying on celebrities, food, performance, and social media to help move properties off the market.

At 300 Ashland Place in Brooklyn, a luxury rental tower in New York's Fort Greene neighborhood that opened last fall, neighbors were struck by the sleek 35-story building that seemed to loom over an area known for its rowhouses.

Yet even that was not quite enough, it appeared, for the new property to get the exposure it needed. Before long, Instagram pictures and accompanying captions touting the property began repeatedly emerging on one celebrity's account.

She wasn't just promoting the property. She was living there, too.

In an age where anyone can be a billboard, subtle sponsored content such as 300 Ashland's has blurred the line when it comes to determining when a celebrity's genuine enjoyment of something stops and when an advertisement begins. For the Brooklyn property, management company Two Trees confirmed to New York magazine this year that it had partnered with fashion blogger/magazine editor Tavi Gevinson, 21, to promote the property.

Gevinson, who has more than 550,000 Instagram followers, reportedly lives in the new complex full time and pays rent. Yet she is also compensated for her promotional work.  (For example, one Instagram on her account includes the caption: "Having a desk at a window with this kind of view is a dream realized #ApartmentStories #300AshlandPartner.")

To date, she has posted ads more than a half-dozen times. The terms of her agreement with Two Trees were not disclosed.

As real estate ads go, Gevinson's gig appears to be just about as subtle as you can get. But would it be enough to persuade you to consider 300 Ashland for your next home?

Consumer-behavior researchers have found that celebrity endorsements help raise awareness and, in general, likability of products — and can ultimately sway a consumer to buy. Online rating systems such as the Davie-Brown Index exist to evaluate stars to determine their marketing potential. (Top rankings have included former President Obama and Taylor Swift.)

What about local Realtors and developers who can't score such big names — does hiring entertainers and VIPs work to promote a home?

In Philadelphia, Stephanie and Chris Somers, the husband-and-wife duo of Re/Max Access, are trying to see whether it does.

Stephanie Somers was one of the early local adopters, she says. Ten years ago, she was the listing agent for a new condo development she thought was "amazing and really different." So, rather than simply list the properties and hold an open house, she threw an art-and-sculpture-themed party, complete with local artists to show off their work.

"An event like this draws a wide variety of people and can have a positive impact," Somers said. "... It's good promotion for everyone involved."

The goal, she said, is to showcase a home with entertainment that complements it. Earlier this year, the Somers Team hired hip-hop artist Talib Kweli to attend an open house for the new Residence at Fillmore, a townhouse project by the Riverwards Group. (His appearance was a nod to the nearby Fillmore music venue.)

And last month, Somers threw a Prohibition-themed party, featuring a live jazz band and costumed gangsters and burlesque dancers, to show off the new Parish House townhouses in East Kensington, rehabbed from a 1912 rectory. (Somers would not say how much the talent for the events cost.)

So far, she said, the promotion has worked. The team has already received offers on Parish House, and Somers said the Fillmore homes are filling up, too.

"Throwing these casts a bit of a wide net," Somers said. "People who come, they might not be buying, but they'll talk about what they saw."