Whether from the James Bond theme sung by Shirley Bassey or from actual De Beers advertisements, most Americans are familiar with the idea that “Diamonds Are Forever.” What most Americans might not know is that with this slogan, the De Beers diamond company conjured enormous demand for and perceived value of diamonds virtually out of thin air. In the process, they made advances in the entwined processes of marketing and public relations, leading to the type of affiliate marketing and third-party endorsements we see often today.
The problem facing De Beers Consolidated Mines in the early 20th century was that immense diamond deposits had recently been discovered in South Africa, flooding the market with diamonds and causing once-respectable prices to drop.1 On top of that, a World War, a Depression, and eventually another impending war had put precious stones and luxuries virtually out of the common person’s mind. In 1938, Harry Oppenheimer, son of De Beers’ founder, engaged New York advertising firm N. W. Ayer to come up with a campaign that would convince the American public that diamonds were essential, valuable, and lasting investments (in fact, diamonds are notoriously difficult to resell).
The team at N. W. Ayer zeroed in on a very modest trend already in place in the U.S. – diamond engagement rings. They proposed that if they could position the diamond as the perfect (in fact, the only appropriate) signal of commitment and eternal love, they would be able to reverse the fortunes of the diamond conglomerate entirely. And they were right. Between 1939 and 1979, De Beers’ wholesale diamond sales in the U.S. went from $23 million to $2.1 billion.2
How did they do it? In much the way that successful PR campaigns are conducted today. Stories were pitched to magazines and newspapers highlighting the “fashionable trend” toward diamond engagement rings and how to choose a quality one, and Ayer made sure movie stars and socialites were photographed wearing theirs. They even organized a lecture circuit which went around to high schools talking to young ladies about expecting a diamond as a promise of engagement. Men were targeted with ads that suggested the diamond as an expression of his earning potential. And of course, in 1947, the slogan was born, “A diamond is forever.”3
Whether you see it as one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time or an instance of insidious propaganda, it’s without a doubt proof that PR, when applied consistently and in the right places, works – even to the point that it can create a whole new cultural expectation and tradition.
“A diamond is forever,” in fact, was named as the #1 slogan of the past century by AdAge in 1999.4
1) Friedman, Uri. “We Buy Engagement Rings Because a Diamond Company Wanted Us To.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 19 Nov. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/how-an-ad-campaign-invented-the-diamond-engagement-ring/385376/.
4) Kolowich, Lindsay. “The Engagement Ring Story: How De Beers Created a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry From the Ground Up.” HubSpot Blog, blog.hubspot.com/marketing/diamond-de-beers-marketing-campaign.