May 12, 2013 by Tamara Piety
You probably think that advertising has no impact on you or your life. In that you are not alone. But you are wrong. If you are a woman in the United States and you are married, chances are very good that your status as a married woman is signaled by a diamond ring. Even if you don’t have an diamond engagement ring, this is its cultural signaling function whether you participate or not. And most of us do.
It has been that way for most of my life (at least for as long as I was paying attention to such matters), so roughly 50 years. But it wasn’t always this way. According to this piece in the New York Times, “How Diamonds Became Forever,” it was in 1938 that a representative of DeBeers inquired of a New York advertising firm (N.W Ayer & Son) how “‘the use of propaganda in various forms'” might encourage the sale of diamonds. According to the article, after doing some research, the firm found that American women thought a diamond engagement or wedding ring was a waste of money. They preferred to have something more practical like a washing machine!
“Still, the agency set an ambitious goal: ‘to create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond ring.'” They succeeded.
Frances Gerety, a copywriter at the agency, created the tag line “A diamond is forever” that became Advertising Age‘s “slogan of the century” in 1999 according to the article.
Interestingly enough, this campaign for the promotion of diamonds was conducted largely via public relations – that is, the agency engaged in creating content reporting on the diamonds worn by movie stars, doing press releases and doing editorial ads that basically just promoted jewelry generally but only obliquely because, at least according to the article, antitrust law forbid DeBeers from advertising or doing business in the United States because DeBeers had a monopoly at the time in the diamond market. Clearly at some point that restriction was lifted. But initially the campaign was hampered by not being able to “promote DeBeers, or even show pictures of jewelry.”
From the time the campaign started (around 1943) to 1951 “the sale of diamonds in the United States increased by 55 percent.” And the agency annual report for 1951 triumphantly reported that “‘Jewelers now tell us “a girl is not engaged unless she has a diamond engagement ring.”‘”
The campaign to make a diamond engagement ring indispensable was probably an early instance of what now is standard practice, that is Integrated Marketing Communications, or IMC. According to the tenets of IMC, all of a firm’s promotional activities should be integrated so that advertising, marketing, public relations, branding, packaging – everything that could influence the image of the company or sales of the products and services – be coordinated. The central recognition of IMC is that marketing is accomplished through a variety of mediums.
Of course, just because this one campaign succeeded so spectacularly doesn’t mean that commercial propaganda is always this successful. The annals of advertising are littered with failed campaigns. This may have been simply a lucky confluence of market and seller. Nevertheless, this campaign for the diamond engagement ring changed the culture in a significant and seemingly indelible way. As I say, even if you opt out of the diamond ring yourself, its function as a signaling device that the woman wearing the ring is engaged or married is pretty entrenched. And when a custom is that entrenched, perhaps like marriage itself, there can be tremendous social pressure to send out “the right” signals — whatever the cost. It is not unusual for people to spend several months’ salary on a diamond engagement ring that women in the 1930s was “‘just absolutely money down the drain.'” (This too, the appropriate amount to spend, was apparently a product of a campaign.)
Doesn’t it make you wonder what else about the world we live in and the customs we practice has been shaped by folks with something to sell?
If nothing else, perhaps it will make you think twice before declaring that you are not affected by advertising. In the meantime we can all tune into Mad Men tonight and congratulate ourselves about how silly and clunky those old ads were….
Curiously enough, Frances Gerety, the copywriter and her co-worker on the DeBeers campaign, Dorothy Dignam a PR specialist, were never married themselves. Perhaps they were not sold themselves….