One of the more useful things to be aware of as an American is the surprising ruthlessness of Madison Avenue’s manipulation. Nowhere is that more evident than in a classic Atlantic story from 1982 exposing how the public was fooled into thinking diamond rings are an integral part of marriage custom. I’d read it a while back, and had forgotten how good a read it is. The most surprising detail is that the “custom” of giving a woman a diamond engagement ring was completely contrived shortly after WWII by a Manhattan advertising agency.
The agency had organized, in 1946, a weekly service called “Hollywood Personalities,” which provided 125 leading newspapers with descriptions of the diamonds worn by movie stars. And it continued its efforts to encourage news coverage of celebrities displaying diamond rings as symbols of romantic involvement. In 1947, the agency commissioned a series of portraits of “engaged socialites.” The idea was to create prestigious “role models” for the poorer middle-class wage-earners. The advertising agency explained, in its 1948 strategy paper, “We spread the word of diamonds worn by stars of screen and stage, by wives and daughters of political leaders, by any woman who can make the grocer’s wife and the mechanic’s sweetheart say ‘I wish I had what she has.’”
The piece also explains the great lengths to which De Beers went to ensure that diamonds, actually a relatively common rock, are kept in artificially short supply to create the illusion of rarity. Furthermore, they control the entire supply chain, keeping wholesale prices much lower than retail (the markup on diamonds is ridiculous, at least 100%) so that it’s impossible for the public to unload their diamonds on the market.
The most interesting part of this piece is the notion that people in 1946 were capable of this kind of cynical manipulation, because it removes one of the most bitter aspects of our current moral degeneracy: that idea that we’ve somehow fallen from a great height. It’s always a relief to find out the fall wasn’t that far.