Stossel Asks: Why Diamonds?

ByABC News
February 14, 2003, 5:11 PM

Feb. 14 -- On Valentine's Day, what's the very best way to tell someone you love them?

In one of the elegant black-and-white ads run by the DeBeers diamond cartel, a distinguished man announces solemnly: "I love this woman!"

But there's a better way to say it, the ad suggests: Give her a diamond. Or a bunch of them. And she'll love you back.

That's what the man in the ad does and it gets quite a reaction: "Oh, I love this man! I love him, I love him, I love him!" says his lucky lover.

Which makes me ask: Why a diamond? Why not a ruby or an emerald, or what the heck a tractor, a toaster or a kitten?

Why did diamonds get to be the love and marriage thing? Why do couples everywhere who wish to declare their love go out and pay big bucks for diamonds?

Is It Because Theyre Rare?

One reason I was given is that diamonds are so scarce.

But Donna Bergenstock, a marketing professor at Muhlenberg College, points out their scarcity is a myth, one created long ago by DeBeers, the South African company that's dug up most of the world's diamonds.

"There are billions of dollars of diamonds sitting in vaults in London, in South Africa that DeBeers specifically keeps off the market in order to artificially raise the price of diamonds," she says.

The supply is so vast that if DeBeers hadn't controlled the world market for decades, diamonds would be much cheaper.

"The diamond is really just a piece of carbon. It's just a rock," says Bergenstock.

The Power of Marketing

So why is this rock a symbol of love? Because DeBeers told us it was.

Since 1940, DeBeers' brilliant ad campaign has been convincing Americans that diamonds mean love.

According to Bob Garfield of Advertising Age magazine, the DeBeers campaign is one of the most effective ad campaigns of all time.

"Unlike most advertising, people just completely bought it," Garfield says. "It created out of whole cloth the notion that at your engagement you must give your intended a diamond."

Years of listening to this propaganda has convinced us that giving diamonds is an age-old tradition.

This is just a sales pitch. In the 1930s, when my parents were married, it wasn't customary for men to give women diamond rings.

It wasn't just ads. DeBeers cleverly lends diamonds to celebrities and movie stars.

The rest of us have to pay for our diamonds and DeBeers is very specific about how much men should spend.