The marketing of chocolate today somehow seems less subtle than many other products in its sexual and racial allusions . In spite of, or perhaps because of the sordid history of the industrialization of chocolate, advertisers continue to use highly gendered, sexist and racial allusions in the presentation of chocolate.[ii] The outrage about this, while not inaccurate, may be misplaced. Who is to blame if we respond to a biased ad and make that ad campaign a success? It is not the advertising agency doing its job that is to blame, but the consumer. We will examine an existing campaign for a chocolate product and then attempt to reframe the message, hopefully with less demeaning stereotypes.
While many of the attention getting strategies used in advertising play upon negative perceptions that we carry in the real world, another very potent attention-getting mechanism used is that of violating reality. The use of a chocolate man, in the case of AXE chocolate body spray, within a live action video, is an example of reality violation. Cognitive psychologist Roger Shepard’s research determined that by means of finely tuned cognitive systems humans are wired to pay attention to unfamiliar images and, notably, most so when the image varies only slightly from the expected reality (a man, but not a chocolate man). The fact that such images invariably warrant our attention is the foundation of photographic advertising.[iii]
An advertisement works largely as a visual metaphor, an abstract concept represented through a visual image that forms an analogy with reality. “Advertising plays a major role in attacking the right customer. It can turn the vision of a simple piece of chocolate into the reality of feeling great satisfaction,” says advertising expert Paul Messaris. “This method of promotion has worked for centuries and will continue to work for time to come.” [iv]The technique is not where the problem lies; the distressing issue is that first world consumers still respond to allusions of chocolate skin holding illicit and indulgent secrets for which women will gladly demean themselves
Unilever’s AXE Dark Temptation grooming products utilize perceptions deeply rooted in our culture. In the video campaign, a young white man applies AXE and is transformed into a chocolate version of him. [v]The figure has a ridiculous grin on his face, portraying men in a demeaning way. The spray makes him irresistible to women, who bear another stereotype, that of an insatiable lust for chocolate. The print ads portray women in an hypersexual manner, responding to Chocoman in submissive ways.[vi] Various campaign collaterals show women attempting to bite Chocoman. The AXE Japan ‘Chocoman Hunter’ contest, playing off of the popular comic City Hunter, achieved a global notoriety that yielded 3 million internet hits and, within the 90 day period of the ad’s Japanese campaign, sold more than 1 million AXE products.[vii]Japan’s Chocoman Hunter Campaign
Unilever describes Dark Temptation in this way: “Axe has become one of the world’s most popular male grooming brands by being a guy’s best first move. Cool, adventurous and never dull, Axe is designed to keep guys a step ahead in the dating game.”[viii]
With the use of ‘guys’ and ‘the dating game,’ Unilever is focusing its strategy on a young audience. The sexual tones of the print ad, while not beyond the interests of young guys, demean the notion of sex as a facet of healthy relationship.
Few ads have universal appeal, and our ad for Axe may well be wasted on the LGBTQ community, or on urbanites that may not have much experience with a shovel. Our device-centric age might leave some at a loss for the nature of the object our guy holds. It is sad to think that we are beyond the capacity to promote a young adult rite of passage in manners that affirm social health. The re-framed ad[ix] attempts to communicate, within its context, a situation of equality, offering chocolate that we are pleased to give; chocolate that we are pleased to receive. Chocolate that makes you smell good. Chocolate that is the reward for diligent brain work; chocolate as a break from labor in the soil: chocolate as an exchange between equals.
What we need to understand is that whatever fantasy an ad agency points at us to convince us to buy chocolate, our life task is to care in whatever way we can, for the child laborer in Cote d’Ivoire, for the transgender next door in apartment B, for the impoverished cacao farmers and for every man and woman we meet, who are all eligible for dignity and respect.[x][xi]
So hunt for Chocoman if you wish. Nibble on his shoulder if it appeals to you. But do not do so without his permission.
WANTED: Responsible Consumers.
[i] Children of Finca Esperanza Verde, San Ramon, Nicaragua. Deb Gregory, photographer.
[ii] Cohan, John A. “Towards a New Paradigm in the Ethics of Women’s Advertising.” Springer 33.4 (2001): 323-37. JSTOR. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.
[iii] Messaris, Paul. Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising. Sage Publications, Inc. 1996.
[iv] Ma, Tony, ed. Professional Marketing and Advertising.
[vi] Chcocman print ad
[viii] Unilever corporate website. http://www.unilever.com/brands-in-action/detail/Axe/292063/
[ix] Ben and Aliza Kenney as models. Deb Gregory, photographer.