From the era of William Cadbury to today’s monstrous chocolate industry, the cocoa boom has been driven largely by a certain subgroup of the world’s population. A particular populace, found in all countries, at all times, has been on the producing and consuming end of chocolate for ages. They are working in the fields of African islands, they are pictured in myriad chocolate advertisements the world over, and they are an irreplaceable cog in the chocolate engine. They are children, and the chocolate industry’s initial boom, as well as its continued growth into new markets, rests largely on their shoulders.
The titanic role of children in the chocolate industry begins quite literally at the beginning. Before bars are wrapped or molds are set, children toil on cocoa farms throughout numerous African countries. In characterizing the work in the Ivory Coast, the journalist Orla Ryan cites a report finding that a multitude of Malian children were brought to farms where “they survived on little food, little or no pay and endured regular beatings” (44). The inescapable nature of the labor has earned the work a reputation as modern slavery. Indeed, as Ryan continues, “There were no chains and no irons, but, unable to leave their place of work, they were effectively slaves…”
From the standpoint of cocoa barons, child labor makes perfect business sense: chocolate is difficult to produce, and vulnerable youth make for cheap workers with little to no bargaining power. As Eliot Schrage and Anthony Ewing note in their survey of the cocoa industry, “Year-round work on a cacao farm includes clearing underbrush and applying pesticides and fungicides. Cocoa bean harvesting entails cutting the pods from the trees, slicing them open, scooping out the beans, covering them in baskets… and then drying the beans in the sun” (101). The work, plainly put, is not easy. And such delicate and exhausting labor would require handsome payment of a more powerful labor force.
With these desires for cheap labor—and a disregard for ethics— in mind, cocoa farms all along the western coast of Africa employ scores of children to perform excruciating work. In their aforementioned report, Schrage and Ewing reference a British documentary’s finding that “children as young as six years old were forced to work 80-100 hour weeks without pay…” (100). The IITA estimated in 2002 that 625,000 children under age 18 labor on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast alone.
The link between kids and candy doesn’t fade once the beans are processed. Journalist Carol Off describes the shock that young cocoa farmers experience upon learning where their product ends up. “I explain that a child in my country will consume such a chocolate bar within minutes,” she writes (8). With this observation, Off not only summarizes the horrific inequality that the chocolate industry has produced; she also paints children as the alpha and the omega of the cocoa business. Children in the wealthiest countries create a demand for chocolate, and those in the poorest are forced to provide the supply.
That chocolate has become such a staple of the western youth’s diet is not an inevitability of taste. It’s a consequence of precise marketing. The following ad for Van Houten shows an early effort by cocoa producers to appeal to children.
With this sketch, the business draws a clear link between youthful desires and cocoa. All emotion in the painting, both the baby’s fit and the elder’s delight, comes as the result of a thirst for chocolate. The message is clear: when kids have chocolate, they’re happy, and when they don’t, they’ll cry. Parents are wise to purchase accordingly.
Fry’s Milk Chocolate follows a similar strategy in their depiction of a young girl toting a cartoonishly large chocolate bar.
The ad plays on the company’s famed campaign showing a young boy’s journey to contentment after receiving candy, not unlike a junky getting his fix. By placing an ad within an ad, Fry’s is implying that the contentment that chocolate can bring is not limited to the boy on the bar—the little girl has a similarly satisfied look on her face. The comical size of the bar plays into and reinforces the childish fantasy of gulping chocolate in impossible quantities.
Chocolate companies’ emphasis on children was not a passing fad. In the 1970s, Hersheypark opened as a single-price theme park. If the rides weren’t enough, the park was billed as a dream destination for kids.
Video Source: YouTube
The above ad shows just how overt Hershey’s pitch to children was: the park was populated by fuzzy mascots and furry zoo animals to go along with the amusement rides. The marketing strategy hasn’t changed much in the decades that have passed. Hersheypark’s information site boasts about many of those same features, as well as smiling, anthropomorphized candy bars designed to excite—and appetize—youth visitors (“Press Room”).
The chocolate industry’s focus on children, whether exploiting young workers or attracting young consumers, ultimately comes from the same desire for vulnerability. Poor children are cheap and limber as workers, and wealthy ones are impulsive and impressionable as customers. It is this idea, that manipulation can create profit, which has placed children at the center of the chocolate industry’s expansion.
Child Labor in the Cocoa Sector of West Africa a Synthesis of Findings in Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria. Arlington, VA: United States Agency for International Development, Development Experience Clearinghouse, 2002. IITA. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
“Fry’s Five Boys Milk Chocolate.” Wikimedia Commons. Wikipedia, 2 Dec. 2005. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
“Hershey, PA: The Sweetest Place On Earth.” Hershey, PA: Press Room. Hersheypark, n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
“Hershey Park Ad, 1978.” YouTube. YouTube, 16 Mar. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New, 2008. Print.
“Old Chocolate Ad.” MesinADesign. Mesina Ad Design, 20 Jan. 2014. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. London: Zed, 2011. Print.
Schrage, Elliot J., and Anthony P. Ewing. “The cocoa industry and child labour.” Journal of Corporate Citizenship 2005.18 (2005): 99-112.