Diamonds are Bullshit

Diamonds are Bullshit

While it seems odd today, diamonds weren’t used in many engagement rings prior to our grandparents’ generation. Until then, when engagement rings even had precious stones, exotic gems like opals, rubies, sapphires, and turquoise were chosen more frequently. In a world without the “A Diamond is Forever” campaign that wouldn’t be surprising. After all, there isn’t really much difference between diamonds and other rocks coming out of the ground, except that they are a lot less noticeable than the gems we just mentioned.

So why are they the top choice now?

To answer that we first need to discuss De Beers, which was founded as a monopoly to raise the value of diamonds by creating artificial scarcity. Unfortunately for them, scarcity alone isn’t enough to make everything desirable and De Beers was faced with the question of how to raise demand for something with little inherent value.

After struggling through two decades of stalled sales, De Beers turned to the ad agency N.W. Ayer. But the way the agency saw it, raising demand meant completely eschewing the idea of inherent value and instead making diamonds mean something.

N.W. Ayer’s first step was to raise public perception of diamond’s by associating them with high society. They lent jewelry out to stars for awards ceremonies and other highly visible social events. They also pushed diamonds into movies and magazines. But they began to branch out from using diamonds solely as a mark of status and towards connoting love as well. For instance, they placed diamond rings in movies as symbols of unwavering devotion, and instructed the press to report on celebrity romances, the diamonds celebrities wore, and particularly on their diamond engagement rings.

By 1941 sales of diamonds had risen 55%, but N.W. Ayer wasn’t done. Actually, in their 1947 strategy plan they stated, “We seek to … strengthen the tradition of the diamond engagement ring — to make it a psychological necessity”. Incidentally, 1947 is also the year they created the slogan “A Diamond is Forever”, which is perhaps their most effective conveyance of the idea that diamonds are the symbol of love and commitment. Obviously, they were successful in creating that psychological necessity: diamond engagement rings became a part of our culture because we accepted the idea that giving someone a diamond proved you were in love. In fact, they were so successful that in their 1951 annual report N.W. Ayer said “jewelers now tell us ‘a girl is not engaged unless she has a diamond engagement ring.’”

Further campaigns continued to promote the association between diamonds and love, solidifying their brand positioning. For instance, some campaigns used diamonds as anniversary presents or encouraged people to hold on to the stones of family members as heirlooms, which had the side benefit of keeping supply down.

But it wasn’t always easy for De Beers.  They made diamonds objects of conspicuous consumption. Engagement rings in particular are meant to show that you are in a committed relationship and to ward off new suitors. But that also makes diamonds status symbols – bigger stones were bringing higher status (or proving great devotion). That is, until later in the cold war, when Soviet diamonds appeared on the market and threatened the delicate pricing De Beers created. It’s at this point that De Beers began to inform people that, actually, the the size of the diamond didn’t matter, after all. Instead much less noticeable things like color and cut were the important factors.

At this point we could sit back and roll our eyes. Their success in making diamonds represent love and commitment is certainly arbitrary, but it’s also kind of beautiful.

Unfortunately, there are also other pernicious factors at play. The price of diamonds isn’t just inflated because of manufactured scarcity or successful marketing. It’s also inflated because diamonds unnecessarily pass through the hands of several middlemen who take a cut of the profits even before entering a second monopoly. Often people will shop around for the best deal on an item, jewelry is no exception. The difference for jewelry is that the big chains (Kay, Jared, and many others), are actually owned by the same company, and strategically placed near each other to trick you into believing the prices for their monopoly supplied diamonds are fair. They aren’t.

De Beers campaign was so successful that 80 years later the diamond ring is still an unquestioned rite of passage. It’s legacy is undeniable.¹ And that’s also why De Beers shouldn’t fear the new technology enabling diamonds to be mass produced – those diamonds weren’t formed over thousands of years, those diamonds haven’t stood the test of time, those diamonds aren’t forever. What De Beers should fear isn’t a new twist on the problem of Soviet diamonds, what they should fear is an erosion of what diamonds stand for.  

1. In fact, I find it hard to imagine turning your loved ones into jewelry could have happened without it, though perhaps that would have been for the best.

What Can Political Advertising Tell Us About Human Nature?

What Can Political Advertising Tell Us About Human Nature?

People view the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack ad against John Kerry as a turning point in the 2004 election, but the research says it probably didn’t have much of an effect. While billions of dollars are spent on political advertisements, they are generally ineffective. However, they do reveal a lot about both advertising and human nature.

To start, political advertising seems to be ineffective because many people have already made up their minds. As a result of confirmation bias, once a mind is set any new information will be viewed in relation to preserving previous thoughts. As George Washington political scientist John Sides told NPR, “When voters are confronted with inconvenient facts, it is oftentimes difficult to persuade them that those facts are, in fact, facts. When supporters of President Obama see negative information about Obama, they don’t think it is true. To the extent it is true, they find ways to explain it or rationalize it — they discount it.”

Since most of the viewers are already committed to a party or candidate, there are very few people out there whose minds can be changed. But, Rolling Stone’s basic position is that this small number of people is large enough to sway our elections and thus justifies the large ad spends. However, the data doesn’t fully support that conclusion. In fact, the person or campaign launching an attack ad often loses support, and the best research in negative ads’ favor suggests that they are most effective when shown sparsely.

But here’s where it gets more complicated and even more interesting. What if it’s not just confirmation bias? What if the ads are ineffective because we have entirely different ways of seeing the world? Fear based ads and imagery are more effective at pushing people to vote conservatively. In fact, reminders of disease or contamination, pictures of children, and images of the flag have all been shown to push people to vote more conservatively in the past. Could that lead us to believe that conservative people in general think more emotionally or make fear-based decisions?

Yes. In fact, the data shows that conservatives and liberals don’t just have minor disagreements, they have different brains with which to interpret the world. Conservatives are more affected by fear – they have a bigger amygdala, respond more sensitively to negative stimuli, interpret things as being more threatening, and are focused on preventing negative outcomes. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be more open-minded, open to risk, capable of change, and focused on creating positive outcomes. Differences in thinking style may also shed light on how to approach these groups. Studies show conservative policies are in general derived from more “low-effort” thinking, while more deliberate (or possibly censored) thought leads to more liberal decisions. A simple summary of these studies can be found here.

Undoubtedly, that should begin to explain the political divide and why compromise seems to be so hard. But it also hints at how to bridge the gap. If you can flip your perspective to examine the issues from either a risk aversion or gain focus, policy issues begin to make more sense. For example, opposition to or support for the Iran Nuclear Deal, Immigration, Stimulus spending, etc, are more relatable when you can see how the other side approaches the issue.

In terms of advertising, the takeaways seem to be focus on thorough action plans and benefits while building a coalition of support with liberals and focus on the preservation of order or the avoidance of negative outcomes while reaching out to conservatives. Products which stereotypically fit a certain type of person may also benefit from these approaches.

Advertising in World War I

Advertising in World War I

World War I played an important role in modernizing the advertising industry. Governmental use of advertising and propaganda to drum up sufficient support for the war effort enshrined the medium’s power. At the same time, shrinking discretionary spending encouraged more traditional advertisers to push the medium in new directions. In fact, with the exception of aviation, you’d be hard pressed to find an industry more changed by the war than advertising.

It is interesting, if not surprising, to note how crude and unoriginal the government produced propaganda was. For example, countries on both sides of the conflict used the now-familiar image of a man looking, and sometimes pointing, right at viewers. Take Lord Kitchener, the original English version, Uncle Sam, and this German poster (which reads “you too should enlist in the army of the reich”).

Lord Kitchener PosterUnclesamwantyoureichswehr

Though the propaganda wasn’t very inspired it was effective.  Years later, James Montgomery Flagg, who created Uncle Sam, said, “A number of us who were too old or too scared to fight prostituted our talents by making posters inciting a large mob of young men who had never done anything to us to hop over and get shot at… we sold the war to youth.”

It’s always interesting to examine propaganda, which seems to rely on people’s nobility or on a sense of obligation. This is particularly true of World War 1 propaganda, possibly because the war seems to be so senseless. In fact, if the war had happened a little earlier it might have been much harder for the volunteer armies to drum up support – the success of World War 1 propaganda relied on the use of emotional appeal which had only come into prominence a short while beforehand.

That emotional appeal translated very well into consumerist advertising of the time, as well. Newspaper’s were replete with calls to help soldiers at the front live in comfort or, like this Burberry ad, to provide them with extra protection:

There is another somewhat famous advertisement (which led to the title of this book) about a man who lost his gramophone. Of course, according to the gramophone manufacturer that was a travesty that needed to be remedied, but in reality it shows the budding consumerist culture more than anything else.

Another amusing ad comes from S.S. White Tooth Paste, which at the time was a market leader in the tooth paste industry. Interestingly is seems to play on a stereotype that is still prevalent today ( that the British have awful teeth) while also demonstrating the longevity of the appeal to the herd instinct.  

Taken from Duke University's Digital Collections.
Taken from Duke University’s Digital Collections.

Perhaps as the result of it’s effectiveness throughout the war, the advertising industry experienced tremendous growth just after it and until the Great Depression. In fact, many prominent brands got their start in between the wars. For instance, Young & Rubicam, Leo Burnett, JWT, and BBDO, all started in during that period. BBDO was actually created directly as the result of the First World War as it’s founders met during their work for the United War Work campaign.

Unfortunately, very little is written about this aspect of World War 1, especially in comparison to World War 2, but it is quite an interesting period nonetheless.

Medicine Breath: Scope gains market share

Medicine Breath: Scope gains market share

Listerine had a dominant market share in mouthwash for decades. That position was built in part on the strength of their mouthwash. They actually used the harshness of its taste as a selling point, with the slogan “The taste people hate, twice a day.”

In hindsight, this set Listerine up for a very obvious repositioning campaign. After all, it doesn’t take much to move a forcefully unpleasant taste from a strength to a weakness. It was Scope that took advantage of it. If Listerine left a medicinal taste in your mouth then it probably left that smell too, Scopes ads usually implied, and well, is that smell really much better than how it was before? One particularly creative ad showed how much more pleasant an alternate scent could be. This ad is from the 70’s and incorporated scratch and sniff technology to give consumers a visceral sense of the difference:

Medicine Breath Scratch & Sniff
Notice Scope is really pushing the question “How would you rather smell to other people?”

Just like in other classic competition repositioning examples, Scope isn’t the immediate focus of this ad. Remember, they have to shift how consumers think of  the other brand before they can fill the void. So, the ad waits until the negatives of Listerine (not mentioned by name) are fully explored.  Note, the focus isn’t on making Listerine seem less effective. Most people using mouthwash used Listerine. They already thought it was effective and changing their mind would be difficult. What they didn’t think was that Listerine was unduly medicinal, or perhaps that the medicinal smell was necessarily a bad thing – now Scope showed that your clean breath could be just as unpleasant.

Scope chose to attack it’s effectiveness at actually making your breath smell better rather than its effectiveness in killing germs. That’s the great thing about repositioning campaigns. The strategy is readily apparent.

Judging by sales the campaign was effective. The formerly unassailable Listerine lost market share and was forced to change its products’ formula to achieve a more friendly taste (and then of course spend a lot of money broadcasting that).

As a bonus, here’s a list of all the weird ways Listerine has been used in the past, or you could go deeper into the world of repositioning with our article on Tylenol.

The Ambiguous Success of Fear Based Advertising

The Ambiguous Success of Fear Based Advertising

If you asked a layperson what they knew about advertising they might say “sex sells.” That’s been the summary of advertising for a very long time. But, fear may be as powerful a biological motivator as sex. Does fear sell?

Yes. Well, maybe.

Advertisers use fear in two different ways. They either build it up or broadcast their ability to free you from it. The fear building technique is often used by PSAs to discourage certain behavior. The freeing technique is used by brands to push products. This type of ad often seems less sinister. Think of the deodorant or  mouthwash ads that broadcast their ability to keep you from the fear of smelling bad. That’s not so awful, and these ads typically skate under the radar because they feel so much less traumatic than an anti-smoking or anti-drinking message.

However, that isn’t to say ads using the freeing technique can’t be harmful. After all, Listerine essentially invented the idea of bad breath as a medical concern to sell more of their surgical antiseptic and made us all a little more neurotic in the process.

Regardless of which category of fear an ad falls into, it would be wise to consider the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM). The EPPM is a framework for understanding how people will react to fear-inducing stimuli like fear based advertisements. According to the EPPM, there are four inputs that determine message success: self-efficacy, response efficacy, susceptibility, and severity. Susceptibility and severity refer to an individual’s belief in how likely and how serious the advertised danger is. While self-efficacy and response efficacy refer to their belief they can perform the actions needed to prevent the danger and that those actions will avert the risk.

One might think the higher the susceptibility and severity the better the ad will do. But actually, according to the model, when fear is too high (and efficacy too low) the message will be less effective because people will avoid the fear by tuning it out. Thus, the optimal combination of the elements involves efficacy measures that are at least as high as danger levels.

Even with the EPPM, the ad profession is divided on the success of fear based advertising. The results are inconsistent. Is it because of poor execution, differences between products (for instance between low and high involvement products), or perhaps even a subtlety with branding where fear based advertisers acquire negative emotions? These are all plausible explanations.

But, even if we were to find some optimal formula for success we haven’t discussed the ethical questions yet. Generally advertising seeks to improve people’s lives. We might overemphasize a need here or a want there, but good products have an innate value. We’re not in the business of pushing bad products because that hurts everybody in the long run. Can we still say there’s inherent value in a product if it solves a fear we had to create in order to sell it? 

If you’re going to use fear based advertising tread lightly.