Between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day, U.S. television is replete with two things: football and jewelry ads. They operate seamlessly, the "Every Kiss Beings with Kay" cadence or "He went to Jared!" catchphrase blasting during almost every NFL commercial break (trust me, I counted).
No matter the brand, each advertisement leans on the same sluggishly tired trope: the surprised female jewelry recipient — one half of a uniformly heterosexual couple — lured into a romantic adventure. She receives something shiny. She gasps!
As we begin our month-long Insight Center on the future of advertising, which features the cutting-edge of the industry, these commercials raise an important counterperspective about marketing: when is innovation in advertising a detriment?
After all, people are still buying jewelry from the brands that make the most irritating ads: over the holidays, sales at Sterling Jewelers stores, which include Kay and Jared, did rise 4.7%. And the share price at Signet Jewelers, the stores' parent company, rose by $4.87.
Even as diamond retail itself has evolved — with low-cost entrants like Blue Nile potentially threatening established retailers like Tiffany — innovators and incumbents alike still tell the same story. And they even stick to the same places: Tiffany has locked down the top right corner of page 3 in the New York Times for more than 100 years. If a diamond is forever, so, it seems, are the advertisements for them.
Brands from Cartier to Kay still use the same formula that De Beers and the N.W. Ayer ad agency came up with in the 1970s. As highlighted in Edward Jay Epstein's classic 1982 Atlantic article, "Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?" De Beers, faced with fluctuating global prices and a "buy smaller diamonds" ad campaign that went a little too well, ordered their ad agency to reframe the discussion. N.W. Ayer was charged with coming up with a campaign that would tie value to a ring containing a good-sized rock.
The agency's research found that an element of surprise was key, but not because women needed to be swept off their feet. Rather, they felt guilty about buying something so "flashy, gaudy, overdone." But if a man did the dirty work, leaving women in the "the semi-passive role" akin to "sex relations in a Victorian novel," a woman "can easily feel that diamonds are 'vulgar' and still be highly enthusiastic about receiving diamond jewelry." In N.W. Ayer's crude argument, your lady just has to lie there.
On the flip side, men, as the main purchasers of diamond rings, needed to be "moved to part with earnings not by the value, aesthetics, or tradition of diamonds but by the expectation that a 'gift of love' would enhance his standing in the eyes of a woman." And women could feel guiltless about wearing a giant diamond, as long as the ring was a symbol of her "status and achievements" — that is, landing a man who could afford to surprise her. In essence, N.W. Ayers and De Beers needed to nudge men and women into a tacit agreement to value emotion over market price.
It worked: the element of "surprise," according to Epstein, "helped De Beers expand its sales of diamonds in the United States to more than $2.1 billion, at the wholesale level, compared with a mere $23 million in 1939."
More than 30 years later, the "gasp" is evidence that this trope is alive and well. And it's not just male ring-purchasers who have bought in to the storyline: according to a recent Tampa Bay Times article, 53 percent of women said they would end a relationship if they didn't receive a gift on Valentine's Day. And in a David's Bridal survey, 57% of brides wished their rocks were bigger.
The problem with product narratives that place a high value on feelings is that, when the thing is actually used (or worn), the value diminishes dramatically. The value of your diamond — i.e. the two months of salary you shelled out for it — suddently disappears. This is why it's so hard to sell old diamonds, why my "estate" engagement ring was a heck of a bargain, and why irritating jewelry advertising is here to stay.
"Diamonds, without their association to romance, cannot be self-sustaining," Jonah Sachs, the author of the book Winning the Story Wars, told me. He and I both looked for examples of rebellious diamond marketing, to no avail.
In fact, when companies do try to slightly alter the narrative to make more out of this storytelling tradition, consumers get creeped out. This ad for Kay struck many viewers as more suitable for an episode of Criminal Minds than as an ad for romance:
There are a few television ads out there that don't use any storyline at all. For instance, this is what marketing diamonds as things — not emotions — really looks like:
But in a sense, even low-budget spots like this one depend on the diamond-as-surprise-love-gift narrative inflated by De Beers. Because diamonds, as evidenced by the Jewelry Exchange's sparkling handfuls, are actually quite common.
An HBR Insight Center