Today, chocolate is a treat enjoyed across the board, by people of all ages, genders, and classes. However, this is a newer development in the long history of cacao consumption—something that was not true as recently as the early nineteenth century, and didn’t happen without a push. In modern chocolate-eating society, you can walk into a store in cities and towns all across the world and have your pick of chocolate confections, from plain chocolate to bon-bons and bars filled with nuts, creams, fruits, or liqueurs. But chocolate has not always been widely available, and its great popularity is due not only to taste, but to very clever marketing.
(Sainsbury’s Official Christmas 2014 Ad, Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM)
Among the Maya, cacao was consumed by the ruling class, and there is the most evidence of that, “again and again the vase paintings depict scenes of chocolate drinking among the governing elites,” (Presilla, 12), but “there is also evidence that it was used by people of all classes, particularly during rites of passage,” (Presilla, 12). The relics show chocolate as part of marriage ceremonies, and among the offerings to the gods and the dead. In Aztec societies, however, cacao was the privilege of the elite, such as the royals, the nobles, and the military. “Among the honors accorded to warriors who returned victorious from battle was being allowed (like members of the nobility) to enter the imperial palace… and consume cacao. The army even drank it on the march. Durán describes the provisioning of Aztec soldiers… and mentions that they were given rations of ground cacao…” (Presilla, 18-19) Although it was clearly very precious to the Maya, among the Aztec cacao was “a treasured substance specifically meant to be drunk by lords and distinguished persons ‘because it was worth much and there was very little of it. If one of the common people drank it, if they drank it without sanction, it would cost their life,’” (Presilla, 19). When the beverage was first introduced to Europeans, the trend of the Aztecs held, and it became a delicacy of the upper classes, a drink of the aristocracy. “One thing that didn’t change – at first, anyway – was the association of drinking chocolate with high social standing,” (Presilla, 25). Chocolate was not forbidden the lower classes of Europe, but as when the Aztec rulers were literally drinking their money, in Europe only the very rich could afford such an extravagance.
For the Maya, cacao was a gift from the gods, a life-giving substance and a gift for the dead. For the Aztecs, it was an indulgence often at odds with their conservative culture, it “was seen as a somewhat exotic, luxurious product, foreign to the austere life to which they so often looked back nostalgically,” (Coe, 76), but a product that was strongly desired nevertheless. For the Europeans, it was a novelty. But this novelty grew into something much more, and as the traditions of the Aztecs inspired the higher classes of Europe, so the practices of the wealthy inspired chocolate’s expansion into the homes, lives, stomachs, and wallets of the middle and lower classes, until it became the everyday luxury it is today.
As sugar prices dropped, and the chocolate-making processes were mechanized, chocolate companies were able to sell their products at lower costs, and sought to convert the masses into chocolate-consumers. “Van Houten’s invention of the defatting and the alkalizing processes made possible the large-scare manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses, in both powdered and solid form, “(Coe, 235). Pictures of the wealthy enjoying chocolate were used to advertise its uses – for meals, for treats, for gifts – first focusing on women (particularly mothers with young children), and then swinging broader to market to everyone.
Nowadays, everyone is a promotional target for chocolate. Advertisements the world over tout the wonders of this delicious snack. Brightly colored packaging appeals to small children, cartoon characters appeal to children and teens, sexy commercials appeal to teens and adults, and popular celebrities appeal to everyone. There are so many varieties of chocolate confections, there’s bound to be something for everyone, and the companies selling it will make sure every potential spender knows that, in a way most likely to catch the attention of prospective buyers.
(Hershey’s “One of the All Time Greats” commercial (1987), Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQzjf2dciUo)
As with many other products around the globe, celebrities are endorsed by chocolate companies, and their appearance in commercials is a high selling point, regardless of what they are doing. Frequently these ads aren’t even really selling chocolate itself, but rather a fantastic idea of what chocolate can mean.
(Cadbury’s Perk Ad Preity Zinta, Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyNQr8k622c&feature=youtu.be)
(Audrey Hepburn, Galaxy Chocolate Commercial, Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gx9eDoS76LM)
Commercials these days spread not only on TV or before films, but online, and many of the later are not even paid for by the chocolate companies.
(Homemade Danish Commercial, Lord of the Rings, Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mTbi86kQdg)
So, although it began as a beverage only for a select few in a very small corner of the world, chocolate has become so popular around the world that consumers are now advertising to themselves, continuing the loop of craving and consumption.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, Third Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2013.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.