In response to the growing demand for “natural,” “authentic,” and “original” foods among Western consumers, chocolate makers have sought to sell their products as somehow connected to the Aztec and Mayan origins of chocolate culture (Martin). By aligning their products with these civilizations, such advertisements exploit Aztec and Mayan cultures to sell to consumers who desire supposedly exotic goods. However, advertisements that seek to portray chocolate as an unusual good have a lengthy history. At the beginning of the twentieth century, such tactics frequently used images of black workers on colonial farms to emphasize the far off origins of chocolate’s ingredients. Due to evolving consumer desires, firms have sought to capitalize on different attributes of chocolate over time, while an emphasis on the good’s exotic nature has remained constant.
As large-scale advertising was just beginning, firms already sought to capitalize on the distant origins of chocolate’s ingredients. In 1910, German postcards used to market chocolate depicted black workers on a cacao farm in Cameroon, while a representative of the British Cadbury Company also focused on those who harvested the beans around the world when writing about cacao production. Silke Hackenesch asserts that “this knowledge of toiling black bodies for white consumers… enhanced the exoticism, the luxury value, and the appeal of consuming chocolate” (Hackenesch, 100-3). The emphasis on the arduous process of cacao production in little-known far flung colonial possessions contributed to the exotic connotation of chocolate, piquing consumers’ interest.
Although Western buyers’ desires to associate their purchases with imperialism waned following decolonization, the depiction of chocolate as exotic persisted. In the 1970s, a popular chocolate candy bar in Mexico, Chocolate Carlos V, was made by “La Azteca” (Liebig). The company used a kneeling, silhouetted, presumably Aztec female offering up a few unidentifiable objects against an off-white background as its logo. Much like the “toiling black bodies” referred to by Hackenesch, her kneeling position reinforces notions of native submissiveness in the face of white colonialism. The woman is also presumably offering up the products of La Azteca as a representation of her culture to the buyer. However, La Azteca’s product is not similar to what Aztec people would have made from cacao. As discussed by Sophie and Michael Coe, the Aztecs would have drunk cold and not particularly sweet products, unlike the solid, sugary chocolate advertised (Coe and Coe, 83-6). These images, which have largely misrepresented Aztec culture, seek to exploit the Aztecs’ relationship with chocolate as a demonstration of the food’s exotic nature. Although the methods are different from those analyzed by Hackenesch, the goal of exoticization has remained.
Recent chocolate advertisements have continued this trend while resorting to more blatant misrepresentations of Aztec and Mayan culture. One chocolatier, operating in Inverness, Scotland, has labeled itself “Maya Belgian Chocolates” (“Maya Belgian Chocolates – Inverness, Highland”). The firm uses a glyph followed by the stylized word “Maya” as its logo, both of which it stamps onto its collections of solid box candies, ignoring the fact that the Mayan people consumed cacao as a hot, not particularly sweet beverage and had no connection to the Belgians (“Maya Belgian Chocolates Logo”) (“Maya Belgian Chocolates Product”). The manufacturer has sought to use the Mayan name to demonstrate some relationship to their civilization where one does not exist, demonstrating the enduring importance of exoticism for sales.
Other companies have sought to exploit the Aztec culture much like La Azteca did three decades prior. One advertisement for a “Chocolate Kit” depicts a stereotypical Aztec male wearing a colorful feather headdress offering a steaming bowl of chocolate to the buyer, suggesting that the product is similar to what Aztecs would have consumed or given to visitors, much like the image of the woman from Chocolate Carlos V (“Ancient Aztecs Chocolate Kit”). Much like the La Azteca advertisement, the hot, sugary product being sold does not accurately recreate the food as prepared by the Aztecs (Coe and Coe, 83-6). Still, the illustrator further emphasizes the connection by adding a stone pyramid to the background while instructing the consumer to “Discover why cacao was so special to the ancient Aztecs!” (“Ancient Aztecs Chocolate Kit”). Given the aforementioned inaccuracies, this caption naturally leads to uninformed consumers gaining false information about how the Aztecs ingested cacao products. Like the other advertisements discussed above, the “Chocolate Kit” maker has attempted to capitalize on the exotic nature of the Aztecs to appeal to consumers.
An advertisement for the Aztec Gold Chocolate Co. goes even further in its attempts to connect with its namesake civilization. Their logo features a stylized bird, vaguely resembling a Native American petroglyph, which is presumably also a reference to the Aztec hummingbird god Huitzilopochtli. The picture also features a “Montezuma Approved” symbol to the left of the bird in a blatantly false attempt to create a connection to the Aztecs (“Aztec Gold Chocolate Co.”). While likely a joke, the fake stamp seeks to convey that not only is the product inspired by the Aztecs, the people of the civilization support the product even though neither the certification nor the connection exists.
Although images of the Mayans and the Aztecs in advertisements for chocolate products have become more common in recent years, marketing that has exploited exotic images of the “other” has been used to sell chocolate products since they became widely available to consumers at the beginning of the twentieth century. While the emphasis of such advertisements has shifted along with consumer tastes, the focus on the exotic nature of the product has remained, demonstrating the success advertisers have had with this tactic. However, the more recent developments in these methods have become increasingly problematic due to their frequent misrepresentations of Aztec and Mayan culture.