Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ooh Sparkly! The Rhetoric of Jewelry Ads

I've been driving past a billboard that's been irking me lately. Here it is:

I know it's a little blurry (sorry), but it says "Girl's night out just got cancelled" and it's attached to the ring like a gift tag and signed "Simon G" (the name of the jewelry company). 

It's that time of year when men everywhere are being told that the only thing their girlfriends/wives/mothers/sisters/women walking near them on the street want is jewelry, jewelry, and more jewelry. 

A lot of women really like jewelry, as do a lot of men, but the rhetoric surrounding these ads--especially during the holidays--gets to be pretty extreme. 

And half the time they don't even make sense to me. 

What is this ad trying to say? Is the "gift" of a cancelled girl's night out for the man who is purchasing this (after all, the gift giver is the jewelry shop)? Does that mean that his motivation for buying this ring is to keep his woman "in line" and make sure she isn't going out to have fun without him?

Or is the "gift" of a cancelled girl's night out for the woman who receives this ring? In that case, does that mean that she doesn't actually want a girl's night out, but she has to keep up the facade to make her lover jealous enough to purchase expensive things for her and now--finally--with this sparkly piece of jewelry on her finger, she can sit at home like she's always wanted?

I don't understand the message, but I'm pretty sure it's problematic either way. 

In order to figure out where this billboard fits in the world of jewelry ads, I went and took a look at a bunch of them. I found they tend to fall into a few categories that help me make sense of this billboard. 


One of the most common themes is that jewelry equals love. 

 In this rhetorical positioning, the jewelry company is just giving you the tools to express the love you already feel. It doesn't necessarily create love, but it does make sure to let you know that your love might go unnoticed if you don't shell out the big bucks and make it official with something sparkly. Perhaps the most obvious use of that rhetorical statement is the example below which says "She already knows you love her. Now everyone else will too." The jewelry companies know that their product is used as a symbol of love, so they're playing that up so that they can remain the most common symbol.


The "Jewelry=LOVE" theme is probably the most traditional, and it really works pretty well. But companies cannot just rest on their laurels. They have to constantly be growing their target market. That's why the rise of powerful women who could purchase their own jewelry brought a new type of marketing. The most obvious was the "right hand ring" campaign. 

Here, women are encouraged to purchase their own diamonds in an act of empowerment, but the ads play directly into the already socially entrenched dichotomy of women as nurturers v. women as powerhouses. "Your left hand rocks the cradles. Your right hand rules the world." "Your left hand wants to be held. Your right hand wants to be held high." Perhaps I should give the advertising campaign some credit for recognizing that both of these ambitions can be captured inside of one body, but then I remember that their only reason for recognizing that is so they can profit off of turning an insecurity into a statement of independence, so I feel less charitable. 

The Bottom Line

It's very telling that most jewelry ads are aimed at women even though there is no shortage of jewelry designed for men. The jewelry market's profit depends largely on two things: women thinking that jewelry is important and men thinking that women think jewelry is important. 

So I think what happened in the billboard I saw is that the advertisers tried to combine the themes of love and power. They knew that women going out to a "girl's night" is a symbol of female empowerment (though why it can't just be a symbol of drinking some good margaritas and laughing is beyond me) and that a ring is a symbol of love. They took the dichotomy of the "right-hand" ring campaign a little too far and are now trying to play the two against one another. If your woman goes and buys herself a ring to feel empowered, well, buy her another one so that she remembers who is in charge. If that makes her go out and buy her own ring to counter the one that you bought her, well, then I guess you'll just have to buy another one. Guess who gets rich. 

Jewelry stores are now trying to deal with the fallout from their own competing narratives. When jewelry meant love and men were the default purchasers, the ads all fell in line with that narrative. Once jewelers recognized that women can make money and purchases, too, they switched the narrative to try to capitalize on that market, and now they're having to fight their own story in order to remind men that they still need to be buying the sparkles as well. 

To be fair, I guess "Rocks: if you want them, buy them. If s/he wants them, buy them for him/her" isn't really very catchy. 


  1. I believe the first ad is trying to imply that if [male] you buy your girlfriend jewelry, she will be so flushed with gratitude/horniness that she will spontaneously cancel girls' night out of her own free will to jump your bones.

    1. Ahh, you're probably right. And the "pay lots of money so you can have sex" theme is pretty common in jewelry ad rhetoric, too, so I should have seen that.

    2. I agree with Andy. Love your analysis, and never saw the right hand ads. SMH...

  2. I think it's just a humorous ad playing on stereotypes.
    One can choose not to be offended, you know. It's not like a physical injury.

  3. It's telling that analytical thinking is read as "offense."