It’s 5 p.m.
In the logjam mess of a Nashville commute, the radio, tuned to one of the local sports-talk stations, crackles out day-game baseball scores and teases for upcoming guests.
The host — 102.5-FM’s Willy Daunic or Brent Daugherty on 104.5’s 3HL — send the show into a commercial break and the ads begin.
A comforting Nashville accent speaks of a competitor, raising the specter of foreign influence and insinuating that the competition just ain’t from around here.
Another ad. This time the problem is that the competition is misleading you with jargon, the voiceover urging you to check out the website for yourself for the facts.
And another. This one urges the listener not to be misled: Despite the familiar voice of the competition, he isn’t really from Nashville. He’s from all over and tries this shtick in multiple cities.
The next day, the next week, each of the players responds to the accusations, ratcheting up their own responses: I’m the best choice. The other guy is lying to you. That other guy is hiding something. That other guy has an accent that belies his roots.
And then the cycle starts again, spiraling into more pointed, more personal responses, with the occasional calming wind of one or the other competitors seemingly taking the high road: He doesn’t have to attack the competition, he says, because he’ll win on his own virtues. Virtues, it goes without saying, the other guy doesn’t share.
And on and on it goes, a never-ending carousel of parries and thrusts.
Political campaign ads?
This is the cutthroat world of diamond sales in Nashville in 2012.
Diamond ads have long been a mainstay of sports-talk radio, and it makes sense. Seventy percent of diamonds are bought by men, and 78 percent of sports-talk listeners are men. Men most likely to be in the diamond market are between the ages of 25 and 39, the same demographic most likely to listen to sports on the radio.
In Nashville, that relationship goes back to the beginning of sports radio in the Music City: The Shane Co., Genesis and a host of other chains and local shops have filled the advertising coffers since George Plaster first said “Hello, everyone.” During peak jewelry-buying periods — Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day — diamond ads make up as much as half of the ad runs on the local sports talk stations.
For years, those ads were fluffy, selling an image of romance and beauty. Diamonds were a gateway to a joyous life of marriage and family, the engagement ring a man’s important first step in proving to his betrothed his level of love and commitment.
But sometime in the past eight months, things changed.
The first memorable salvo in the diamond wars was fired by Forrester’s Diamond Outlet, a relatively small store that heretofore had been a small player in radio advertising.
Employing the gravelly Southern accent of legendary MTSU and Father Ryan football coach Boots Donnelly, the ad sold down-home values — Donnelly coached Bob Forster as part of 1977 Father Ryan state championship team — but wound throughout the ad was an emphasis on the accents of unnamed competitors, and how “the accent guy” was spreading lies about his diamonds, using suspect sales practices and misleading his customers.
To devoted listeners of sports talk there was no doubt who this unnamed “accent guy” was: Genesis’ Boaz Ramon, an Israeli immigrant who, in his two decades selling jewelry in Nashville, turned his broad accent into a selling point, using the slogan, “My accent is always on value.”
Ramon responded to the jab, but not by firing back at Forster, but by comparing his sales practices to “a Cool Springs chain store.”
Now they’ve dragged in Tom Shane — another mainstay on the local airwaves — into a three-way dance.
From there, the battle escalated. Forster remained content to use its football coach/stalking horse Donnelly to emphasize Ramon’s otherness, while Ramon and Shane focused on each other.
It was a small player who started the fight, but it’s the big stores who would take it to the next level. Forster was Gavrilo Princip taking a shot at Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but Shane and Genesis would end up the real combatants in World War I.
Perhaps sensing his attack was too subtle, Ramon moved from referring to Shane as “the Cool Springs chain store” and instead started referring to the store by name, an unusual and almost unheard of tactic in retail advertising.
Some of the attacks were easy to understand: Shane (or Genesis, depending on who was delivering the voiceover) was selling lesser quality diamonds.
But some of the salvos were more esoteric.
For all its suspect business practices, market-controlling global diamond cartel De Beers has done admirable work of ingraining the “four Cs” of diamonds — color, carat, clarity and cut — in the mind of the American consumer. As a result, dealers traditionally emphasize that their diamonds exceed the competition across all four categories.
But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Clarity and color are subjective ratings, certified by various trade groups, an alphabet soup of three-lettered organizations of whom Joe Q. Public has never heard.
All the players in the Nashville radio battle insisted they used reputable certifications and that everyone else used suspect — usually “foreign” — certifications. It’s hard to say if the average consumer knows the difference, but the implication of “American is good; foreign is bad” was there.
And on it went. Weeks of “Shane’s 2-carat diamond is a lesser quality and priced at thousands more” from Genesis and, “Look at our competitor’s website, they aren’t comparing apples to apples” from Shane.
Tom Shane is the owner and voice of the Denver-headquartered Shane Co., which owns stores in 14 cities across the country. He’s been doing radio ads for 40 years, and the company’s been on the air for more than 50. He says his is the longest-running continuous ad campaign in radio.
The company’s preferred to keep things positive. Their “You’ve got a friend in the diamond business” is one of those warm and fuzzy taglines we’re used to.
But Shane said after months of direct attacks from “a competitor” — he never used the name Genesis in an interview with The City Paper — he decided he had no choice.
“This is not something I enjoy,” he said. “We never have disparaged a competitor. I think it is a negative thing to do. It brings down the image of both companies and of the industry itself. So to deal that way is very against our culture and our history. If you fail to eventually respond and the attack continues, the human mind will associate you with that negative message, and people would tend to draw the erroneous conclusion that there must be some validity in what the attacker is stating, because otherwise the victim would defend themselves.”
Shane said the diamond war is unique to Nashville. It’s not occurring in other markets, and with one exception — a more snarky, indirect and much shorter-lived campaign in Atlanta several years ago that prompted a newspaper headline of “You’ve Got a Feud in the Diamond Business” — it hasn’t happened elsewhere.
In that instance, Shane never responded directly to the ads.
“In this particular case, we were forced to break our silence. It was too long, it was too frequent and too direct, and too false, too fraudulent, too deceptive,” he said. “We were forced against our principles to respond.”
Neither Forster nor Ramon responded to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Bill Fletcher is a regular listener to sports talk radio, so he’s heard the endless waves of ads, but unlike most listeners, he has professional interest in the messaging.
As CEO of Fletcher Rowley, a political media consultancy firm, he’s crafted advertising for numerous candidates. He knows the pros and cons of negative advertising, politics’ necessary evil.
What’s more, Fletcher once invested in a diamond-cutting concern in Namibia, so not only does he know about advertising, he knows diamonds. And, like Shane, he’s not so sure the Nashville diamond market’s pugilistic turn is a good one, especially with the emergence of online dealers.
“In the diamond world there are a huge variety of choices — it would be shortsighted to get into a hatchet-drawing contest,” he said. “There will always be a place for local jewelers, because the whole diamond business runs on trust. There’s always going to be a place for real human beings who are in stores, and that’s why, again, trust is an important part of that business. I would caution them about negativity.”
But Fletcher understands why the dealers feel pressure to go on the attack.
“The margins in the diamond industry are significant, but there’s so many middlemen that by the time they get to the store, the margins are trimmed significantly. It’s hypercompetitive. It’s understandable why they are trying to fight for market share,” he said.
To Fletcher, the old model of accentuating the positive — the romantic images, the avuncular local jeweler — is the most effective way to win business. This new pointed and personal tack is untested.
“The diamond business is extraordinarily competitive, and extreme competition leads to arms race between competitors, but it’s really unusual in the corporate world to have one brand go after another brand,” he said.
He pointed to a famous 1950s ad about coffee. Two housewives sit at a table. The
first comments on how bitter her brand of coffee tastes, and her friend offers an alternative. The result, though, was that coffee purchasing in general — not just for the so-called bitter brand, but for every brand — declined.
“Everybody decided coffee was a little too bitter. Since that time, there’s an understanding that you can say good things about your coffee,” he said.
While he admits that oftentimes going negative in a political campaign can be effective, that’s a result of campaigns having an expiration date. For consumer products, there’s no Election Day.
“Nobody is ever going to have an election and either Coke or Pepsi go home. I think it’s fine to highlight that which differentiates you from the competition, but with these contrast ads, at the end of the day, there’s no place to go but down,” he said.
Fletcher points out that in political races with more than two candidates — in a primary, for example, or a nonpartisan local race — negative ads are rare.
“In a political campaign with five candidates, it’s kind of unusual to have attack ads, because it tends to drive voters to another choice. In general elections, negative campaigns are more common because there is no third choice,” he said.
Thus, the risk in attacking is turning off a customer not just to the prime competitors, but also to your own store.
“If I were to sit down with the diamond guys, I’d say it may be a short-term strategy, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to have industry players attacking each other. The net effect will be everyone will suffer,” he said.
While Fletcher would advise against the marketing plan the diamond guys have chosen, he does see what the dealers are going for.
With the gravelly football coach contrasted with the “accent guy” and the stores’ emphasis on its use of American certification, he said Diamond Outlets is going for an us-versus-them strategy.
“There’s a phenomena in politics called birds of feather. That would be pretty obvious that they were trying to draw some sort of contrast there,” he said.
In the run-up to Mother’s Day, Tom Shane ran an ad seeking the high ground. He talked about “all the negative talk” we’d heard “from those other diamond dealers” and he emphasized his company would, going forward, run on their own merits. As a result, his company’s May ads were more traditional — show your mom or the mother of your children how much you love her — and backed away from the direct attacks.
Fletcher said that was a smart move.
“That’s a good way to get out of this [negative] business. That’s called an ‘anti-negative negative.’ The characteristic of that is if Candidate A attacks Candidate B, most people don’t look at an ad as negative [by default]. So you have someone say ‘Isn’t it unfortunate … ’ — you have to point out the other guy is being negative,” he said. “[The diamond dealers] would be wise to take that as an opportunity to walk away from this battle.”
Because of the natural cycle of the diamond business — after Mother’s Day, there’s a lull in sales until Christmas — the wars have come to a summer detente. Genesis is back to using voice of the Titans’ Mike Keith to emphasize its relationship with the city’s football team. Forster and Donnelly are talking about the values of hard work and trust. Shane is, as always, your friend in the diamond business.
Whether the players will go to the mattresses again is anybody’s guess, and if this flare-up was any indication, the first shot will come out of nowhere. But if Fletcher’s prediction is true, the dealers will have nowhere to go but down.