Feb. 14, 2003 -- 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 They’re 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.
"How else can two months' salary last forever?" the company's ads say.
DeBeers' message is "the bigger the diamond, the more you love her," says Bergenstock.
Are They So Special?
Is it really just a sales pitch, or is there really something special about diamonds, a sparkle that makes them unique?
We tested that idea. We went to Grand Central Station in New York with two rings. One was a piece of cubic zirconia, worth about a dollar. The other was a $10,000 diamond.
I asked people which they liked more.
Most people could not tell the difference. Of dozens of people we asked, nearly half picked the cubic zirconia.
Yet women told us, even if they had preferred the look of the imitation, they'd still rather be given the diamond. "It just makes you feel like you're special," said one woman. "I know what I want on my finger, and it has to be the real thing."
We'll spend more for a rock because a South African cartel has run a great ad campaign? Apparently we will.
Give Me a Break!
Now it happens that the producer and editor of this story, and I, are men. So maybe we're missing something. I'm curious what women will say on the message board ….