12.06.08

De Beers: Diamonds Are a Recession's Best Friend

In a marketing gambit more dazzling than their product, De Beers touts diamonds as the cure for evil consumerism.

Unlike Prada, Vuitton, Hermes and other luxury marketers who are hawking their wares conventionally this Christmas season, De Beers isn't pretending it's indulgence-as-usual.

Instead, they are acting more boldly and directly than Hank Paulson: They are making the case that even though Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers have disappeared—and the Big Three and Citigroup hover on the edge of vanishing—a diamond is forever.

But their fiendishly clever psychology goes even deeper: De Beers is actually using grim times to re-position the purchase of a diamond bauble as not just a gift, but a philosophical and ethical declaration.

"Here's to Less" one ad is cheerily but somewhat ominously headlined. The copy sounds more like an ad for a zen retreat than for a girl's best friend: "Our lives are filled with things. We're overwhelmed by possessions we own but do not treasure. Stuff we buy but never love.”

The implicit message: If more people bought diamonds instead of credit-default swaps, we’d be just fine now.

Buy a diamond, De Beers is saying, and you are recognizing what is truly valuable in life—and rejecting the superficial consumerism that has brought the world’s mightiest economy to its knees. This is a wickedly clever kung-fu move for the new Obama-ready marketplace: Monroe becomes Thoreau.

Think about the incredible co-option that’s going on here. Diamonds are ultimate artifact of capitalism and consumerism—inherently neutral objects whose value depends on the manipulation of scarcity and the aggressive promotion of cultural symbolism through Jacob the Jeweler and Harry Winston the Jeweler.

Yet here we have the world’s leading diamond firm instructing us in the evils of consumerism and arrogating for itself a higher plane of spiritual meaning. Note as well their wily use of the word "stuff"—a bit of vernacular so the message doesn't get too grandiloquent. The hypocrisy dazzles more than the product.

At the same time, De Beers is inviting the reader to share their karmic virtue. You may work on Wall Street, you may have even have been a bond-trading contributor to the current mess, but now you can atone. Guilt is being expiated, validation is being bestowed. And you can make a dame happy at the same time. Wowee.

This is gutsy. The unwritten rule of luxury goods marketing is to rise above the messiness of the moment. But De Beers clearly believes this is no ordinary moment, and that they’ve got to address a mood so sour that not even the rich are in a mood to spend.

The copy closes with what they call in marketing “asking for order”—but in a seductive, intimate voice that reminds us of the emotional value of the diamond: “Perhaps now is an opportunity to assess what really matters. After all, if everything you bought her disappeared overnight, what would she truly miss?”

If this campaign actually works, it will be because it fits neatly into the manufactured narrative framework that De Beers has spent generations creating in one of greatest marketing triumphs that capitalism has ever seen. When diamond sales skidded during the Great Depression, De Beers hired the agency N.W. Ayer and launched a national advertising campaign to establish the diamond ring as our national engagement and wedding gift.

At the same time, De Beers began a concerted effort to convince Hollywood to connect the industry’s glamour and romance to the stone—proto product placement. Between 1938 and 1941, diamond sales went up 55 percent.

Then, in 1947, De Beers launched their “A diamond is forever” campaign, and by 1965, a staggering 80 women had their engagements measured in carats. Christmas 2008 continues this tradition of inserting diamonds deep into the culture, and rendering them transcendent at the same time.

A second ad in De Beers’ contrarian Christmas campaign is even more pointed in its criticism of the boom years. “We live in an age of the fast and disposable” we are told. “Where a week can be considered long-term.”

The business-and-finance lingo is no accident. A diamond embodies Buffet-like values, a Victorian sense of time and patience. The implicit message: If more people bought diamonds instead of credit-default swaps, we’d be just fine now.

While these exotic instruments were vaporous and insubstantial, diamond were “ there as the earth formed, there as the first civilizations took hold.” This is powerful language with an end-of-days, apocalyptic quality.

Trend expert Faith Popcorn says “I think diamonds could end up being thought of like they once were, an emergency escape mechanism. The Jews sewed them into their hems and used them for safe passage. We’re all worried about the Banks and how we would 'get out of Dodge' if we had to.”

Love, permanence, spiritual peace, the rejection of false gods, and safe passage to boot. You can’t get that from a Birkin bag.

Adam Hanft is a decoder of the consumer culture and our branded planet. He blogs for The Huffington Post and FastCompany.com, and has been published extensively, including in The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Civilization, Radar, and the back-page column for Inc. He has appeared on CNN, the Today show, and many other media outlets. He is also the co-author of Dictionary of the Future. Adam also decodes the culture as founder and CEO of the marketing and branding firm Hanft Raboy.