"A Diamond is Forever"

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Flowers. Chocolates. Heart-shaped boxes. Love letters. Romantic dinners for two.

For many of us, these are the things we most associate Valentine’s Day with—which is all well and fine. If the boys over at De Beers have their way, though, these aren’t the only things we’ll be thinking of.

De Beers is the biggest diamond mining interest in the world. Incorporated in South Africa in 1888, the company’s formation was less an organic outgrowth of demand as it was a coalescence born of necessity. Until that point in time, diamonds were thought to be an extremely rare and thus intrinsically valuable commodity. When massive deposits of the stones were discovered in Africa in 1870, this supposition was proven wrong. Virtually overnight, all of the world’s leading diamond mining financiers, most of them based in Britain, realized that their industry was on the verge of potential ruin. Being the effective, profit-minded capitalists that they were, this relatively small group of men came to a quick and mutually beneficial solution: to consolidate their operations into a single entity so powerful that it could, in the words of Atlantic writer Jay Epstein, “control production and perpetuate the illusion of scarcity of diamonds.”

Yeah, you got that right. They decided to restrict the availability of diamonds—a resource of which they were the sole arbiters—by controlling the public’s access to them and thus artificially inflating their price. Pretty intense, right? But how could they have done this?

diamondOne of the first things the newly-formed De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. did was employ the help of New York ad agency N.W. Ayer. It was this agency that conceived and executed a decades-long advertising/branding campaign to inculcate consumers across the world to associate diamonds with romantic notions, to believe in their inherent value and scarcity, and to hold that, despite certain geologic actualities, “A Diamond is Forever.”

In the agency’s own words, it accomplished this by implanting a simple idea—that of “the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond”—within a middle class obsessed with symbolic wealth, personal success and “conspicuous consumption.” On one side of the Atlantic, Hollywood was enlisted to incorporate the stones into films as symbols of love. On the other, it was envisioned that the Royal Family might be recruited for similar purposes. Resultantly, De Beers has since been called “the most successful cartel arrangement in the annals of modern commerce”—a dubious title to be sure, but one that’s hard to refute.

What interests me most about the De Beers/Ayers campaign is not what it indicates about the diamond industry, but rather its analogy to American electoral politics. Just as N.W. Ayers probed and shaped public opinion to generate brand support within the commercial realm, the persuasive savants of the political realm operate with striking similarity. I think many would agree that it’s via slick marketing and well-crafted messaging—rather than earnest politicking—that various candidates on both sides of the aisle are sold to their publics.

What does everyone think of this? Is the American public merely an assemblage of pliant rubes whose every thought and proclivity can be known, deconstructed, understood, and thus exploited? Or, alternately, is too much stake placed on the capacity of language and persuasive communication as tools of public manipulation? Indeed, is the question even remotely as simple as I’ve posed it here? (I’m confident that it’s not, but have nevertheless posed it in the hope of stoking contemplation.)

These are among the things I want to continue reflecting on this semester. How autonomous are we, really, as a public that’s equally as consumptive of products as it is of ideas?

Epstein, E. J. (1982, February). Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond? (new window) The Atlantic.