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.

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 man who changed advertising

The man who changed advertising

“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.” – Bill Bernbach

Before Bill Bernbach advertising was a wasteland. It was WASPy, repetitive, and formulaic – imagine Mad Men without the sex appeal or nostalgia and the boring bits left over would be pretty close to what advertising was like. It was Bill Bernach and DDB, the agency he helped establish,  that started the creative revolution and gave advertising a more glamorous air.

Perhaps the best way to capture the effect they had on advertising is to compare their ads with other ads from the same time period. As Luke Sullivan says in Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, VW’s iconic “Lemon” ad debuted when other ads said things like: “Chevrolet’s 3 new engines put new fun under your foot and a great big grin on your face!”

The ad that changed advertising
The ad that changed advertising

What a change it is! The Chevy ad’s substancelessness is somewhat typical of the time period, which alternated between an over-reliance on emotional appeal or on broadcasting the unique selling proposition. DDB, on the other hand, often used sparse artistry to attract attention and then followed it up with snappy copy. In this case, that copy prominently featured a defective product and turned it into a selling point – finishing with the memorable “We pluck the lemons; you get the plums.”

Noting the artistry of Bernbach’s creative revolution is important. As he put it, “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.” But the creative revolution wasn’t simply about making advertising more visually appealing. In fact, it was about making sure the art fit the ads. As odd as it would seem today, Bernbach was the first to pair copywriters and art directors on projects – ensuring that both aspects worked together rather than separately.

Other famous DDB ads from the period show this. Take Levy’s bread, VW’s Think small, and Chivas Regal’s Give dad an expensive belt. Most impressively, 50 years later they still feel current. They could probably still garner press and generate sales.

So what we mean to say when we talk the creative revolution isn’t just that Bernbach married the art and the copy, or that he found ways to advertise using negatives, or that he made great use of humor. It’s that he turned advertising into pop culture. Bernbach made ads that people talked about – that truly changed buying behaviors and consumer attitudes. In some way, you could say the creative revolution that Bernbach kicked off made ads a part of our culture rather than a reflection of it.

With that, I’ll leave you with the DDB’s Avis Tries Harder campaign. An excellent way to turn the number two position in a product category into a sales advantage.

An excellent ad repositioning Avis' second place into an advantage
An excellent ad repositioning Avis’ second place as an advantage

Tylenol repositions the competition

“For the millions who should not take aspirin”

As anyone in marketing can tell you, unseating category leaders is difficult. That’s why Pepsi has trailed Coca-Cola for decades and why Tide has remained the leading detergent since the 1940s. It’s not impossible though, and one of the best ways to advertise against a category leader is to use their brand presence in your own favor. The best way to do that is to run a repositioning campaign.

In essence, repositioning the competition requires comparative advertising, but it is not simply comparative advertising. Comparative ads evaluate products side-by-side. Repositioning ads try to take an attribute of the competitors product and shift it into a weakness.  Then they show how their own product fills that gap. Most of a repositioning advertisement should be devoted to your competitor’s product, and not even the product as it exists in reality, but as it exists in the mind of consumers. Only once the ad has succeeded in framing their competitors’ products attributes as weaknesses do they introduce their own product. One of the most famous repositioning campaigns was done by Tylenol. In this advertisement Tylenol isn’t even mentioned until the third paragraph!


Let’s take a closer look at the ad. “For the millions who should not take aspirin” is a very interesting line. Many people today are still unaware of the differences between over the counter analgesics, before this ad even fewer were. It’s interesting because it’s alarming enough to draw in the uninformed. Notice, too, that the ad doesn’t say Tylenol is better than aspirin. It doesn’t even directly say that Tylenol is better for the stomach. Right now, it’s only saying some people shouldn’t use aspirin. It’s avoiding those comparative statements because comparative statements can conflict with consumers pre-held notions, and if they do they are likely to get dismissed.¹ Instead, the ad tries to convey new information – the instances in which taking aspirin is detrimental and, as it builds that case, it lets the consumers decide for themselves that Tylenol is better. That’s the essence of repositioning.

Remember, Tylenol was doing more than just creating niches for itself to occupy, which can also be an effective way to gain market share. Instead, it went beyond that strategy, put those holes together, and used them to reposition aspirin as a brand that was harmful to the stomach. In fact, Tylenol was so successful in conveying this information that it gained considerable market share and eventually the product actually displaced the aspirin-based medicines and became the best selling analgesic.

1. This is the result of confirmation bias which causes people to seek information that confirms their opinions and to dismiss information which contradicts them.