My favourite ad of all time: DeBeers ‘A diamond is forever’ from 1938 onwards

The DeBeers campaign linked diamonds to engagements way back in the 1930s - a tradition that survives to date, making work on the brand an all time favourite for Grey's Daniel Foo

The best ads affect culture, turning ideas into global norms, accepted truths that nobody thinks to question. And if you’ve received a diamond engagement ring, you’ve just (possibly unknowingly) taken part in a century-old advertising campaign. Perhaps it’s because I recently got engaged and subsequently married, but I now have a newfound appreciation for the DeBeers diamond engagement ring advertising campaign – which has become my favourite of all time.

History books say Romans were the first to give their wives rings attached to keys as a symbol of betrothal. It wasn’t until 1477 that the Archduke Maximilian of Austria commissioned the very first recorded diamond engagement ring for Mary of Burgundy.

And while people did occasionally propose with rings or precious stones, it was a practice pretty much exclusive to royalty and the super-wealthy. Most aren’t aware that it’s only very, very recent history – the 1930s – that diamond engagement rings became de rigueur, thanks to DeBeers.

De Beers hired Philadelphia ad agency NW Ayer in 1938, who went on to market the ingenious idea that a diamond engagement ring should cost one month’s salary, effectively putting a price on sincerity, while taking off the pressure of carat size.

This standard was then upsized to two month’s salary in the 1980s. This remains the norm today.

Let us not forget that in between, they also pushed out one of the greatest headlines of all time: ‘A diamonds is forever’. It’s the best case-study of emotional marketing for a product that has no intrinsic value.

This is a perfect campaign for many reasons. It has affected culture the world over, transcending race, religion and language. It’s also moved (and continues to move) heaps of product. Everyone wants a piece of diamond swag, be it on an engagement ring or a flooded out watch face – I know, I do.

Diamonds retail at well above their resale rate and lose 50% of value once you step out the store (ouch). And the perfect justification for an exorbitant price tag on something you don’t want people to resell? It’s something you have to keep forever. Boom. Genius.

Knowing all that, I still would love to go about my day dripping in diamonds. Though both the writer and the agency behind ‘A diamonds is forever’ are no longer around, the campaign’s legacy is – like the diamonds it sells – forever.

Daniel Foo is creative director at Grey Group Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa. He lives in Singapore


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