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Many people may not realize that numerous listing images uploaded to the MLS, used on broker and agent websites and apps, and syndicated for display on other Internet sites, are heavily modified. While this can be a very effective sales tool, some undisclosed manipulations may be deceptive. National MLS policies and other steps should be implemented to address the risk this causes.

At the 2019 Clareity™ MLS Executive Workshop, we invited Peter Schravemade from BoxBrownie.com to present “Ethical Marketing & Photography,” to help frame the beginnings of the national conversation that is needed to create such policies. Such policies would have implications for listing maintenance and compliance, data standards, IDX and VOW rules, agreements with photographers, as well as data license agreements for listing content sent to third parties.

It is not the purpose of this blog to propose restrictions on media manipulation that might be counter-productive to the selling process. Rather, the focus is to consider how MLSs might help subscribers improve their current marketing practices while reducing their risk, as well as reducing consumer dissatisfaction that may result from undisclosed, possibly deceptive, manipulations.

Media Manipulation Can Be Good - Even Necessary

Peter provided an example of an overexposed listing photo, where important details such as the view out of the window could not be determined. The view may be desirable, like an ocean view, or undesirable, like a sewage treatment plant. He described the common process that professional photographers use, taking multiple photos at different exposures to capture all the important details, then compositing them into a single image to maximize the detail presented. This technique, called “bracketing”, is technically media manipulation, but is entirely ethical and done entirely in the service of providing an image that is most like what one would see with one’s own eyes in the room. In fact, not using bracketing to ensure our hypothetical sewage treatment plant is shown, does not properly represent the listing. There are other basic edits, such as straightening a photo accidentally taken at an angle, that are also clearly not unethical and should be of no concern to us and should not require disclosure.

Types of Media Manipulation

There are several practices that are common and useful in the sales process but may be deceptive, depending on the implementation. Such deception may be intentional or unintentional. For example:

  • Image enhancement – The intent of this edit is to return the image to what a buyer might see when visiting the property but which the original photograph may not have captured. For example, a grey sky may be changed to a blue sky to reflect a sunny day. In some areas of the US, and most of the world, it is acceptable to add green grass. Issue: overuse of this type of manipulation - for example, adding grass to an area where it would not or could not normally grow well - can misrepresent the property.

  • Twilight conversion – The intent of this edit is to demonstrate the property at a time of day which evokes a positive emotional response in a buyer. It is quite often already commonplace as a manipulation when the photographer has been unable to photograph the property at sunset as desired. Issue: Photographers may change the color of the sky and add a sunset, but sometimes when they do so they put the sun in the wrong location. When this happens, the viewer may think certain rooms will get southern or other exposure when they will not. The viewer may think they can enjoy sunsets from the pool when sunsets would be blocked by the house. This misrepresents the property.

  • Item removal – The intent of this edit is to remove clutter that will be removed before the sale / or that is not part of the sale process. Issue: An overzealous editor can easily misrepresent the condition of whatever they imagine lies behind and beneath the clutter. Obviously, editing out undesirable things such as power lines, poor views, and property condition issues, is deceptive and unethical.

  • Virtual staging (Item addition) – The intent of this edit is to demonstrate to a purchaser what a space could be by adding photorealistic furniture. When executed well, this is an effective and harmless edit. Issue: If not performed extremely carefully, it is easy to misrepresent the size of the room by adding virtual items that are not in actual proportion to room measurements. Images of light sources that imply a fixture is present where when none is installed would be deceptive. Images of items that would normally convey with the property but are not actually present would be deceptive. If a condition issue is being obscured by the items added, it would also be deceptive.

  • Virtual renovation – The intent of this edit is to demonstrate to a purchaser the potential of a property (by, for example, adding a pool), or removing an objection (like adding a kitchen, or renovating an abandoned property) This manipulation removes everything from a room and leaves it looking like it is already prepared for painting and other finishing. Issue: If not disclosed well, it may be misleading if the viewer believes the image is of the actual condition of the room. After all, not only might getting the room to that state be expensive, but in the process of actual room preparation one might find other conditions that increase the cost of actual renovation.

  • Renders / CGI / Hybrid CGI – The intention of this edit is to demonstrate what a property might look like before it has even been constructed. Issue: The reality of what is constructed is rarely identical to an artist rendering. If the viewer does not understand that they are looking at an artist’s creation and not present reality, it could be deceptive. This should be disclosed.

Ensuring that media manipulation is disclosed is important for a couple of reasons. Obviously, we do not want to mislead brokers, agents, appraisers or consumers. No one wants to waste time visiting a property that is not in the condition indicated by photos and other media. The accuracy of professional property valuations that depend on manipulated images of the property or comparable properties, could suffer. There may be lawsuits by people who purchase a property without validating the veracity of each listing image. Finally, as we consider a future where computers could use artificial intelligence to create data about a property based on the related media, we would not to accidentally rely on a manipulated image and create incorrect data.

Actions Suggested for the MLS Industry

The MLS industry has a strong interest in the accuracy of listing information, including media. The property should be represented accurately by media, and neither professionals nor the purchaser should not be deceived. Ideally, we should implement a national MLS policy regarding media manipulation that is easy to understand and uses correct terminology so that it is understandable both by real estate professionals and media creators.

The following actions should be considered:

Create an implement a national policy regarding media manipulation. Require disclosure. It must be easy to understand.

Educate MLS subscribers on photography “common sense”, explaining where a technique may be deceptive and explaining their responsibility in vetting the manipulation performed against the property being sold to ensure the image is not deceptive. MLS subscribers should also be taught how to spot media manipulation providers that create deceptive images, intentionally or otherwise, and how to report issues to the MLS. It may be desired to share best practices in establishing contracts with such providers, including the obligation of providers to provide those purchasing their services information about what changes were made to each image, and such that risk regarding accidental or intentional deception is not entirely held by the listing agent and others that use the media. If media manipulation might possibly be deceptive as described above, MLS subscribers need to understand their responsibility to disclose the manipulation.

Create a standard disclosure as a part of the media manipulation policy. Peter Schravemade provided the following language as a starting point for discussion:

This image is an artist’s impression of what the property ‘might’ look like. As such the image has been digitally modified. [ABC REALTY] suggests you conduct your own due diligence into the state of the property or request a statement of what has been modified from the brokerage.

Rules regarding the display of such disclosures, in the media themselves as a watermark or displayed prominently in proximity to the media inside the MLS, on IDX/VOWs, and wherever the content is syndicated, should be a part of policy.

Establish RESO data standards for storing and transmitting information about media manipulation. Each type of media manipulation listed above may be an enumeration of the field. Peter suggested an additional enumeration: “A digitally activated fireplace or appliance”.

Once there are policies and data standards related to media manipulation, make changes to the MLS listing maintenance software so this data can be managed.

Consider if and how MLS rules and data license agreements may be amended to protect parties that use the media from risk due to deceptive media manipulation that was missed by the listing agent.

Last Words

Media manipulation has become less expensive and is increasingly commonplace. Each of the types of manipulation described above can be a perfectly legitimate and valuable sales tool - when executed correctly and disclosed. Creating MLS policies and taking the related actions described above should help us maintain professionalism and ethics and reduce risk for those using manipulated images.


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