This posting is in honor of my new sister-in-law, who opted out of the engagement ring thing.
Now, I'm not opposed to engagement rings if they represent pure devotion and true regard and are not just a sparkly cattle brand (for the boy) or an eight-cow* certification (for the girl). I am opposed to the ridiculous insanity and obsession associated with the whole institution, and no place is there more engagement ring insanity than my beloved alma mater, BYU. My feelings on the topic are well summed up by the following, which is the snarkiest college paper I ever wrote -- a textual analysis of a local engagement ring ad that ran in the student paper. If you click on the above image you'll be able to read the text of the advertisement I was dissecting. It's a real stinker.
My professor's final note on the paper was, "Really funny, Marie! Are you truly so cynical?"
When it comes to engagement ring frenzy, yes. Yes, I am.
However, to show that I'm really a romantic under it all, I've added engagement pictures of my adorable friends and family, looking blissful in spite of the diamond vampires. Proof that it's possible. The second-to-last photo is my brother and cousin doing a fake engagement photo shoot to freak out the grandparents. And if you endure to the very end of this long post, you'll see a picture of the guy I was trying to impress when I wrote this paper. He laughed when he read it, just as I'd hoped, but as you can see, he ended up in the arms of another woman.** I'm sure he loves her for her snark-free soul.
November 3, 1997
It's enough to turn the stomach of even the sturdiest R.M.*: a quarter carat diamond blown up to roughly 20 carats, sparkling like the evil eye of a lovesick coed, stares back at him from the Daily Universe*. And that's just the graphics. In the text of this shameless Wilson Diamonds ad, a chatty, empathetic voice establishes a you-and-me-buddy relationship between the author and the reader, while an array of rhetorical devices are pulling the poor bachelor's every string. And all this man-to-man confidence is a facade -- even while the ad is reasoning calmly with the poor bloke, it screams right past him to his fiancée who stands behind him, entranced and drooling. The ad hollers to her in a frequency imperceptible to the male ear, "Hey, sister! Tell him if he loves you, he'll take you ring shopping at Wilson's!" To accomplish this amazing feat in two different keys simultaneously, the ad employs ethos and a mother dose of pathos, woven into an intricate unisex code.
Firstly, this "ideal" business feeds the unhappy Boy an unhealthy dose of ethos at a time when he is largely incapable of defending himself. Why is he so helpless? Well, for this particular decision there are few people he can truly trust. His starry-eyed fiancée does not have his best interests at heart, and whether or not she sympathizes with the ring's drain on her Beloved's finances, he knows she longs for a sparkly to put that wench in her Y Group* to shame. His parents are likely hovering between the Hope Diamond (which will reflect well on their boy and, by extension, them) and a Cracker Jacks ring (which will mean one less interest-free loan to the happy couple in the lean years ahead). And his buddy's telling him, in all sincerity, to get her the best cubic zirconia that money can buy and live with the guilt. Wilson's descends upon this scene with the voice of the Love Veteran (as well as a couple of strategically placed capital letters) to calm the tempest in the young man's heart, head, and pocketbook. "Relax," the ad croons in its best Condescending Psychiatrist tone, and gently settles the feverish fiancé onto the leather couch for a masterful healing-and-dealing session. This single word sentence, "Relax," solidifies the inherently manic nature of the ring-buying venture and the young man's inability to cope with the pressure alone. And while other ring dealers are shamelessly hounding him and "are busy showing cheaper and cheapest," Wilson's simultaneously slaps the Band-aid of Reason on his angst and establishes itself as the Diamond Mecca with the introduction, in the ad's fifth sentence, of the "Ideal Cut" diamond. No explanation is ever given of what exactly the "Ideal Cut" is, or if it is a respected standard in Diamond-dom. And yet the capitalization of those first letters lends the whole ad a definite air of authority. The prestige of carrying the aforementioned "Ideal Cut" diamonds is reinforced by an official-looking logo in the lefthand corner of the ad, which proclaims Wilson's to be "Utah Valley's Ideal Cut Diamond Jeweler." The ad has first established that Wilson's merchandise meets an absurdly high standard with the use of capitalization, and now assures us that no other jeweler in Happy Valley* meets that same standard.
Ethos is at work on Ms. Right, as well. Her faith in Wilson's good sense is cemented in the ad's heading which proclaims, "Buy Your Ideal An Ideal." Right from the beginning, her merits as a prospective wife are compared with the best diamonds in existence, giving the folks at Wilson's instant credibility in her mind. And again the capitalization of the word "Ideal" gives the ad a sort of divine, scriptural aura, as if they were talking about Truth or The Word or some other spiritual absolute. The little slogan right above the Wilson Diamonds logo boasts an especially clever breed of ethos -- a sort of Emperor's New Clothes tactic. It says, "The More You Know About Diamonds The Better We Look." In other words, the ad is saying to the discriminating bride-to-be, "If you are wise and have any taste whatsoever, it will be obvious to you that Wilson's is the ultimate diamond authority." (And of course the implied, "If you're skeptical about our claims to superiority, then you're so thick he could give you glass and you'd never know the difference.") The slogan makes her knowledge about diamonds, which is probably limited, the key to deciding whether or not the ad's assertions are sound -- and no girl wants to holler "Wilson's claims are as naked as jaybirds!" and be branded as stupid and low-class by every "discriminating" female in the suckered crowd.
And we mustn't forget that the ethos of this masterpiece feeds directly off the pathos of the whole prenuptial situation; first, pathos as it afflicts said Boy. The voice is first one of empathy, citing how "hard," nay, "impossible" it is to track, capture, and tag the perfect girl while staying sane and financially stable. A voice of camaraderie, a voice of commiseration. "I've been there, man," the Wilson's salesman seems to say with a half smile and a knowing chuckle in the first two sentences. There is also an appeal to the guy's feelings of pride in both his fiancée and his own ability to choose diamonds and women. The ad is quick to agree wholeheartedly with Boy's glowing opinion of Girl by referring to her as "the ideal mate" -- no skeptical comments like those he gets from his roommate, who has actually met her. The ad also suggests with the reference to "finding a diamond worthy of her," that she is worth a whole lot, but that that worth is easily converted into diamonds and/or Deutschmarks. (Note that "priceless" isn't an adjective that comes up a whole lot in jewelry ads, to describe either women or the diamonds they supposedly deserve...)
The ad's author knows how tidal Girl's emotions are on the subject of her upcoming marriage, yet he/she is not above exploiting them. Girl believes that a good marriage must be built on a rock, but she's not sure if that's figurative or not. Even if she knows that her man would go to the end of the earth for her, she secretly wouldn't mind having hard evidence of that devotion to flash at girlfriends, archenemies, and innocent passersby. The ad tells her that if she can convince her beloved that Wilson's is the diamond dealer of choice, she will be doing him a favor because they carry "Ideal diamonds [he'd] be proud to give," and she of course wants him to be proud of the Ring which symolizes their Love. Also, she likely has a genuine concern for her fiancé's fianancial situation (which will soon be her financial situation, too). So the ad emphasizes that her honey can get her an extraordinary Ideal Cut diamond for "less at Wilson's than an ordinary diamond...elsewhere." Apparently, she can have his cake and eat it, too. By handing her true love this Wilson Diamonds ad, she can practice being the supportive and frugal wife she so longs to be, while simultaneously securing her very own Ideal Cut Diamond which will ward off potential competitors for time and all eternity*.
Writing an advertisement as brilliant as this one is no small achievement. The author realizes that the guy is paying and is therefore ultimately the one who has to be convinced of the product. And yet with something like an engagement ring, it's hard to tell which half of the happy couple is the ventriloquist and which is the dummy. In fact, (to strain this metaphor even further) the two are so hopelessly tangled in the marionette strings that a wise advertiser must make sure that every word speaks to both halves. The Wilson's ad seems spontaneous and conversational, but it is as perfectly crafted as (and more convincing than) most campaign speeches, using a complex combination of ethos and pathos to steer the star-crossed lovers into the welcoming arms of the Wilson's family. In fact, The More You Know About Rhetorical Devices, The Slimier This Ad Looks.
* = Mormon/Utah/David Bowie references. If you're a no-Mo or no-Bo, Google 'em or ignore 'em.
** = Lest you wonder, I have no ongoing obsession with this fellow nor with the woman who won him -- I started saving engagement photos in high school for all my friends and family and so they're just part of that larger collection. The collection itself might indicate mental illness, however. I won't deny it's a bit odd.