Misogynoir: a term used to describe the particular brand of hatred directed at Black women in visual and popular culture (Gradient Lair).
African women have a long history of being mistreated and misrepresented in media, and chocolate advertising is no exception. This essay will attempt to shed light on the infantilization, subjugation, and even dehumanization of black women in chocolate advertising in both an historical and modern context. Achieving that, it will then aim to turn those problematic marketing tactics on their heads by proposing an advertisement that does not rely on racial or gender stereotypes.
In 1947, York-based chocolate company Rowntree introduced a marketing character dubbed “Honeybunch.”
What can we deduce from Honeybunch as an advertising tool? To begin with, Honeybunch is literally not a person. Though the white mother and her two children are granted their humanity in live-action form, Honeybunch is a doodle, a cartoon. This is a deliberate tactic of Rowntree’s marketing team. Though she appears with the family in-shot, “Honeybunch remains safely distanced by appearing in a different medium—that of animation” (Robertson 44). In doing so, she remains a nonthreatening, easily manipulated tool.
Honeybunch’s language sets her apart as well. Although the white children in Rowntree’s advertisement speak in what we can identify as a “proper English”—“Oh Mummy, may I have something before I go to bed?”—Honeybunch herself speaks in broken, imperfect, and decidedly racialized syntax. “Feelin’ kinda hungry? Me—I’d have a cuppa Rowntree’s.” Her dialect is based off “stereotypes of black speech, influenced by imperialism, minstrel shows and other African and African American stereotypes.” Such details are intentional, designed to make the character an unthreatening cartoon or “Uncle Tom.” (Robertson 44). The difference in her language also infantilizes her, which is a common tactic not just for depictions of Africans, but also for women.
The use of such language by infantilized black characters was intended to amuse the white British audience…the use of non-standard English is amusing only to those who consider themselves able to speak it ‘properly’, a status primarily conferred by being white and born in England…the adverts reinforce ideas about the supremacy of the English language, apparently spoken all over the world, and about the ignorance of those who do not speak it “properly.” (44)
If her status as a cartoon character in a live-action world was not enough, her classification as lower, as “other” than the white family is further enforced by this difference in her speech.
Honeybunch’s broken dialect is consistent from advertisement to advertisement, though her conversational partners are not. In another ad—this one fully animated—entitled “Honeybunch, the Early Bird, and the Worm,” she is drawn next to a bird with a worm in its beak.
“Feelin’ kinda hungry?” she asks. “Me—I’d have a cuppa Rowntree’s.” Her language is still a broken, racialized dialect, but where before she was communicating with humans, here she is depicted as interacting with an animal. Her interaction with animals is not a far removal from the stereotype of Africans as uncivilized bush savages, worthy of mockery or attention as entertainment (45). Her ability to communicate with a bird connects her to the animal kingdom in an un-human way: if she is able to speak with beasts, how different is she from them?
Honeybunch is subjugated as well as dehumanized in her advertisements. Her catchphrase “So grateful–so genial–so GOOD” is not only a description of Rowntree’s chocolate, it is also a commentary on Honeybunch herself. As a black female, she is “safest” to white consumers when she is well-mannered, eager to please, and serving or offering in some way (Robertson 43). This mindset is deeply entrenched in white society and harkens back to the depiction of black women as “mammies” (house slaves).
Such issues are not exclusive to chocolate advertising, of course. In fact, Honeybunch’s tagline is strikingly similar to that of Quaker Oats’ 1937 “Wake Up to Aunt Jemima Pancakes!” campaign.
Aunt Jemima is a “mammy” caricature, an archetype that has been described as “the most well known and enduring racial caricature of African American women.” The similarities between Aunt Jemima’s Mammy and Honeybunch do not stop at their catchphrase, however. Historically, mammy caricatures were representations of female slaves who were brought inside their master’s homes to serve the family, and media has used their presence in the household (and in history) to instill the idea that this was a desirable and enjoyable position. “During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks—in this case, black women—were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laughter, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institute of slavery” (Ferris.edu). Just as Honeybunch was drawn into being as a benign presence that used her “otherness” to bring her into white households where she could encourage white families to purchase chocolate, so too does the mammy caricature use the skewed reimagining of slavery to peddle breakfast goods. Honeybunch proclaims “I’m not real” by dint of her animation, just as Aunt Jemima’s mammy smile assures the white consumer that “I am content with my place serving you.”
Unfortunately, the way black women are represented in chocolate advertising has not become less problematic as time has gone on. In 2011, Cadbury ran a print advertisement that drew a direct parallel between black femininity and chocolate:
Not only does this Cadbury advertisement equate living humans to an edible commodity, it targets one person specifically, with no care or warning given. The woman it specified, supermodel Naomi Campbell, immediately picked up on the racist and dehumanizing connotations:
Campbell revealed she is considering “every option available” after Cadbury, owned by the US giant Kraft, refused to pull the ad campaign, which ran in newspapers last week: “I am shocked. It’s upsetting to be described as chocolate, not just for me, but for all black women and black people. I do not find any humour in this. It is insulting and hurtful.” (Feministing)
Though Cadbury eventually pulled the campaign, no apology was ever received. Rather, the company released a statement saying that the ad was “a light-hearted take on the social pretensions of Cadbury Dairy Milk Bliss” (Feministing). This is but one example of the entrenched practice of representing black female bodies not only as less than truly human, but also as public property that is always available for capitalistic pursuits. The ad reduced Campbell, an internationally known model with an extensive following, to a product based on the perceived similarity between her skin and a type of food–an overt display of dehumanization. And while having the ad removed was certainly a victory, the overwhelming majority of black women do not have the privilege of fame required to call attention to such sexist racializations.
Additionally, it is worth noting that, though chocolate became an intrinsic part of heterosexual courtship as early as the 1970s, this author was unable to find a single representation of a coupled black woman (Robertson 30). There are countless depictions of white heterosexual men offering chocolate to white heterosexual women all over the internet, television, and in print, but nowhere could I locate a piece of media in which a black woman was given chocolate by her romantic partner; either her body was compared to the product in some way, as we saw in the Cadbury/Naomi Campbell campaign, or she enjoyed it alone, without the presence of a partner. Though their bodies are worthy of exploitation and hyper-sexualization, black women are still not deemed fit for depictions of romance or affection. They remain exotic and erotic “others” without ever being fully taken into the fold. To those who would protest that it makes sense for a company to depict those of the culture–and therefore color–of the nation they are advertising to* (an immensely problematic argument in and of itself), I would urge to remember that Rowntree had no such qualms about using Honeybunch in their media.
How can we combat these problematic elements? It is along uphill battle, but there are steps that can be taken.
The advertisement to the right makes an attempt at doing so. The model has not been deprived of agency through infantilization, nor has she been reduced to a caricature. We have already established that Honeybunch speaks racialized English because it places her outside the realm of what is “normal” to the consumer. This woman’s language is not the broken English used by Honeybunch. She speaks French instead, the language of business in Cote D’Ivoire, a major cocoa-producing nation (Ethnologue). This signifies that the advertisement has not been created for Western consumption, and is instead marketed toward the native population. Just as Honeybunch’s broken, racialized dialect sets her apart from the other “proper” speaking characters in the Rowntree’s advertisement, this woman’s status as a French speaker sets her squarely within her culture. She is not an outsider, or an other: she is acting as part of her community. Instead of peddling chocolate to white characters, she is instead being offered chocolate by someone who she has superiority (hiring power) over. She has full professional agency. The chocolates she is being offered are a mix of dark, milk, and white; she is not a dark person being offered dark chocolate because it matches her skin tone, and she is not a dark person being offered white chocolate because its light color will somehow aid or further her efforts.
Unlike so many chocolate advertisements, this ad does not attempt to erase or capitalize on the subject’s race or gender. It is an attempt to do away with seeing African women as an “exotic primitive archetype” and tries instead to inject something “more dynamic, cosmopolitan, and realistic of African women’s lives” (Leissle 136). Though she is a woman, her attire is not meant to allure or titillate; she is dressed for business. Her garb is not meant to erase her identity as an African; though she is dressed in “Western” clothing, her attire could be an element of “cultural dynamism” signifying that she is one who may “choose for themselves how to incorporate new goods and ideas into their lives” (Leissle 128). Furthermore, unlike other chocolate advertisements featuring black women, she is not working “under the supervision, directly or indirectly, of a white manufacturer” (Robertson 40). To the contrary, the hand that is offering her the chocolate is white, an inversion of the Honeybunch advertisements. The woman depicted is intentionally “visually distant from National Geographic’s tribal archetype” because her presence is not attempting to “compel viewers to donate money to women who are struggling to meet their basic needs” (a tactic used by Nat Geo and Oxfam alike) (Leissle 131).
It was worth noting, however, that not all chocolate advertising is so grossly misrepresentative of African women, and that there is at least one company in existence that is taking steps to counteract the current and historical depiction.
Divine Chocolate, a UK-based company that buys cocoa from the Ghanaian Kuapa Kokoo Cooperative, ran a spread of advertisements featuring female cocoa farmers depicted as “cosmopolitan consumers of luxury goods and owners of the chocolate company” (Leissle 121). The women in the advertisements were smartly dressed, thoughtfully posed, and shot on the farms themselves, giving the women context, agency, and status.
Chocolate advertising has a history of misrepresenting black women for capital gain. These marketing campaigns rely on subjugation, dehumanization, and lack of agency to construct harmful portrayals of African women as savage, stupid, or inherently “less than” and “other” than their white consumers. White women seem to exist to chocolate companies (and in chocolate advertising) when a pretty face or a racy, sexual slant is needed, but the same does not hold true for black women. Because “anti-Blackness and White supremacy make White women the ‘norm,'” black female bodies are instead used as exotic centerpieces with an emphasis on their “otherness” (Gradient Lair). That otherness is drawn through caricatures that grew directly out of American slavery, the stereotype of African people as savage or uncivilized, or by likening their skin to chocolate itself. We can see this very clearly in chocolate advertising, both historical and modern. It is only when we are able to identify these problematic themes and elements are we able to not only reject them, but invert them as well.
*The quote that led me to include this was spoken during a casual conversation between myself and an acquaintance, who argued quite fervently that “American and British companies have every right to only include white people in their advertising because those countries are historically white.”
“Côte D’Ivoire.” Ethnologue. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2015. <http://www.ethnologue.com/country/CI>.
“Explanation Of Misogynoir.” Gradient Lair. N.p., 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2015. <http://www.gradientlair.com/post/84107309247/define-misogynoir-anti-black-misogyny-moya-bailey-coined>.
Leissle, Kristy. “Cosmopolitan Cocoa Farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate Advertisements.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 24.2 (2012): 121-39. Print.
Loos, David. “Aunt Jemima.” Southern Food Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2015. <http://faculty.mercer.edu/davis_da/southernfood/blog.html>.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.
” The Mammy Caricature.” Jim Crow Museum: The Mammy Caricature. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2015. <http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/mammies/>.