The True Darker Side of Sweetness

Every industry has its favorite advertising tropes. Unfortunately, in the chocolate industry, advertisements are often rife with sexist, racist, and classist implications. Routinely propagated to millions of consumers worldwide, the advertisements both perpetuate harmful stereotypes and fail to convey actual knowledge about chocolate. However, with a little effort, producers can eliminate these insidious stereotypes from an advertisement and transform the base concept into positive social value.

Perhapse the most common image in chocolate advertising is that of a woman being seduced by smooth, luxurious chocolate, as in this simple Dove commercial:

Here, chocolate merely leads her to swoon; other ads are more extreme, with women driven to varying degrees of passion or lunacy, sometimes to the point of cannibalism, all for a bite of chocolate. And it seems like only the so-called “weaker sex” is susceptible to the dark, luscious craving. Another gendered theme is what historian Emma Robertson calls the “fetishization” of domestic women as housewives and mothers, where the mother, never the father, feeds chocolate to loving children, propagating the dated view that the primary duty of a good woman was to care for and nourish her family (20).

Furthermore, advertising makes it clear that chocolate consumption is a treat that only the adequately privileged can indulge in. Gold, gowns, and ballrooms often appear; even advertisements for lower-end brands like the Dove ad above still depict gloss and velour, both to imply the smoothness of the product and to invoke luxury. However, rarely is a word said about how these luxurious treats were produced. Thus, as Robertson eloquently laments, these advertisements “perpetuat[e] western sexist and racist ideologies under a veneer of pleasurable consumption” and “divorc[e] chocolate from the conditions of production” (10).

It doesn’t have to be this way. Consider the ad below for Caribú bitter chocolate, part of a a two-part series by the Peruvian agency El Garaje Lowe taglined “The Darker Side of Sweetness.”

Caribú Bitter: Canari (El Garaje Lowe, Lima, Perú, 2009)

Many sexist tropes discussed previously are evident here. Our main character, a rosy-cheeked, scarlet-lipped, well-dressed, miniature Snow White, is playing pretend kitchen. She, presumably, would grow up to be a perfect housewife, a perfect woman. The catch: she is grinding a fluffy baby chick in a meat grinder, for the chocolate has possessed her will. Again, we have a case of a seduced female. The strange thing is that the ad doesn’t seem to actually taint the girl’s image. Rather, it reads that Caribu bitter chocolate is so bitter, so dark, so luscious, that it can bewitch a cherub into madness.

It is unclear if this is serious marketing material. Information on the production agency, as well as on Caribú chocolate itself, is elusive on the internet. If it is indeed for real, it invokes the romanticized notion of a “good girl gone bad.” Dear consumer, if you want to let out your inner wild child, let yourself into the throes of Caribu bitter chocolate.

However, as many bloggers and journalists have noted, this image seems to cross most people’s line between temptingly dark and outright revolting, such that it is hard to imagine that it actually is designed to sell. That, coupled with the dearth of information online on Caribú products, suggest that it may instead be an dark commentary deriding the baseless tropes of seduction and domesticity in chocolate advertising.

Regardless which interpretation of the Caribú ad we use, it remains that the scene does not seem to have much depth beyond shock value. This is unfortunate, for the concept of a “darker side of sweetness” is not only pithy and punny but also too real: the other side of the chocolate industry, that of production, is actually a tale of cruelty and poverty little exposed to consumers. For example, 70% of chocolate is produced in Africa, where slavery, including that of children, still exists as an anachronistic legacy of colonial rule (Martin). Less than 1% of chocolate revenue reaches farmers–so that the cost of one bar of chocolate in the States is more than 3 days of wages for one African cacao worker, if he is paid at all (Martin, Off 7). The chocolate industry is a vast dichotomy between consumer and producer of wealth, race, and gender. The “The Darker Side of Sweetness” concept is a prime opportunity to close some of the knowledge gap.

Thus motivated, we present the following image in response to the Canari advertisement:

The True Darker Side of Sweetness

As before, children are committing unspeakable cruelties because of their chocolate consumption. As before, they seem healthy, happy, otherwise guilt-free, and privileged. But now, the cruelties are the truth: when one savors chocolate, one savors the sweat and blood of workers worlds away. More often than not, these are the toils of starving Africans, some of them children, some of them modern-day slaves, who will never themselves taste the chocolate (Off 120-9). Even the most innocent child consumers are implicated. Meanwhile, the false dimensions of gender have been removed. Now, the message “The Dark Side of Sweetness” has real weight.

To be fair, our response is less an advertisement than a PSA; most chocolate producers could not sell by blatantly depict the true dark side of their industry. Nevertheless, our work suggests that the original ad concept could be recreated without the domestic setting, with both sexes equally represented, and that the same message about the bewitching nature of chocolate could be conveyed without the additional baggage of anachronistic stereotypes. And one could imagine at least somewhat reducing the knowledge gap while still appealing to consumers with a “chocolate farmers are some of the poorest in the world, and by supporting us, you support them” argument. That still handwaves over the cruelties, but at least it makes people aware of the wealth gap, and the curious can research it further.

At the end of the day, advertising is one of the primary shapers of societal perceptions, and it is unfortunate that the chocolate industry seems to convey more harm than good. It is indeed a great challenge advertising to both sell and educate and to avoid falling into habitual stereotypes, but … isn’t that why we call advertising designers “creatives”?

Works Cited

Dove Chocolate Commercial. Dir. Vittorio Sacco. YouTube. YouTube, 20 June 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

El Garaje Lowe. “Caribú Bitter: Canari.” Ads of the World. N.p., Jan. 2009. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Martin, Carla. “AAAS 119x Lecture 15: Modern Day Slavery.” 25 Mar. 2015.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New Press, 2006. Print.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. 1-131. Print.


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