Hot Cocoa: A Historical Analysis of Gender in Chocolate Advertising

A necessary component of any successful business is a clearly defined marketing strategy. Whether it be through print, word of mouth, or social media, corporations rely of various types of advertising to spread and maintain marketplace awareness about their product(s). In general, this is done by appealing to consumers’ thoughts, emotions, and worldview. Thus, naturally, as consumers’ thoughts and attitudes change, the ways that corporations seek to appease consumers must change as well. One microcosm in which this phenomenon can be analyzed is the chocolate industry. While many ads for chocolate products in the early 20th century depicted explicitly sexist and/or stereotypified caricatures of women, ads today tend to be tamer by comparison. Even still, the expansion of the chocolate industry paired with the growth of the chocolate-eating consumer base has complicated the way that ads for chocolate are perceived. By comparing historical and contemporary chocolate ads, it is possible to see how corporate and individual attitudes about chocolate have changed in the face of globalization. Although contemporary ads may not be as sexually derogatory as they once were, they maintain harmful sexist undercurrents. Contemporary chocolate advertisements, while they have deviated from their overtly sexist past, covertly perpetuate detrimental tropes about women.

First, historical ads for chocolate products relied on the idea that a woman’s primary job was to be a housewife. This notion primarily manifested itself in ads featuring children as chocolate consumers alongside claims that chocolate was beneficiary to their health and/or wellbeing. One explicit example of a company that relied on its ability to appeal to a woman’s “motherly instincts” was Rowntree’s, an English confectionary company. In the 1930s, as a part of the Special Mothers Campaign, Rowntree’s print advertisements were advised to feature children because “[Women] want a story…a story told in pictures that will interest every mother. A story of natural, lovable children – just like her own” (Robertson 27). As such, Rowntree’s ads, such as those featured below, prey on a mother’s natural love of her children.

The reason why Companies like Rowntree featured children in their ads because of housewives’ purchasing power. A Rowntree’s advertising brief from 1951 articulates this point perfectly when it notes that women are inspired to purchase goods on behalf of their husbands and children. “[Rowntree’s sells] to wives and mothers chiefly…because the woman is the family’s purchasing agent, and because she can be inspired to act in her husband’s and children’s interest when she might not do so in her own” (20). Hence, by marketing to the attentive housewife and mother, companies like Rowntree’s can rely on mothers to purchase chocolate products for their households while simultaneously pushing the Rowntree’s brand onto their children. By creating an advertising system that pulls in consumers for both the short and long terms, chocolate companies have historically been able to maintain intergenerational brand-loyal customer bases while perpetuating gendered tropes.

A trope that both parallels and deviated from the stereotypified dutiful housewife, is the endeared lover. While both draw on notions of heteronormative couplings, depictions of female chocolate consumers have historically been used to entice men to purchase chocolate for their significant others. In advertisements for Rowntree’s Dairy Box, for instance, observers could often find subliminal messages of chocolate being a component of heterosexual courtship rituals (31). Intertwining the narrative of chocolate as an aphrodisiac with heterosexual romance enabled companies to make their consumers equate a man’s attraction to a woman with a woman’s attraction to chocolate. Consequently, if a man wanted to win over a woman, he could use chocolate to entice her.

Alongside the pattern of men purchasing chocolate for women came the development of sturdier chocolate boxes. While companies like Cadbury had been manufacturing chocolate boxes since the 1800s, chocolate boxes during the World War I-era were made of tin for cost and durability reasons (Moss, Bedenoch 68). The sturdiness of the boxes complimented their post-chocolate uses, such as storage unites for emotional keepsakes.

Both the tropes of the housewife and lover were keys to advertising chocolate in the early to mid-1900s because of the role that women played in the society at the time. Because many women did not work, men were the primary breadwinners of households. This explains both why companies assumed that women would be the primary ones shoppers in families and that men would be gifting chocolate to their significant others. Regardless of which strategy was dominant, both drew strength from the social expectations of feminine behavior at the time of their development.

Secondly, though gendered stereotypes are not as pronounced in modern chocolate ads, companies heavily rely on the sexualization of women and their bodies to sell their products. Although ads historically featured sexy women to entice men to purchase chocolate for their significant other, ads today feature said women to entice women to purchase chocolate for themselves. Simply put, in the world of advertising, sex sells. On a psychological level, companies interject sexual appeals into their ads because the appeals “can be thought of as sexual promises that either implicitly or explicitly offer sexual benefits to consumers” (Reichert 38). Research conducted by Tom Reichert and Jacque Lambiase revealed that the three most common sexual promises that are made in ads are: 1) sexual attractiveness for the consumer; 2) increased likelihood in sexual contact; and 3) feelings of attractiveness (38). The chocolate industry uses these tactics when constructing their ads in order to subconsciously draw people to their products through innuendo and subtext. Consider the following ad for an 1848 brand chocolate bar:

The ad, containing no words, features a series of shorts clips of the chocolate making process strung together by shots of seemingly aroused woman. The woman, at times drenched in chocolate, is meant to symbolize the pleasure that one would feel if they were to consume an 1848 bar. Female viewers are then meant to believe that eating an 1848 bar will give them some level of sexual gratification beyond what a standard chocolate bar would have given them. It is important to keep in mind, though, that an ad does not have to be blatantly sexual in order to use sex to sell their products. Take, for example, the following ad for Schmitten Chocolates featuring actress Priyanka Chopra:

Unlike the ad for the 1848 bar, this ad features no explicitly sexual overtures. Instead, Chopra is shown playfully running away from a chocolate flood that seems to be following her with each bite she takes. Her casual attire and lively demeanor signal to the audience that she feels beautiful and confident whilst eating chocolate. As a result, female viewers of this ad are conditioned to believe that eating a Schmitten bar will make them feel as beautiful cheery as Chopra.

While it is nice to think that the existence of ads like this mean that sexism/the objectification of women in advertising is over, the truth of the matter is that sexism persists in less obvious forms. When compared to historical ads, modern chocolate ads tend to rely less on promoting specific gender roles to sell their products. Instead, companies use the gender roles that already exist to justify their ads. Though there is only a slight theoretical difference between these two practices, the difference in the ads that result from them are astounding. For instance, an ad that is overtly sexist might feature a glorified image stay-at-home mom who gives chocolate to her children with a slogan that is anti-working women. An ad that relies on the stereotype that women are stay-at-home moms, however, might have a slogan that implies that a good mom is one who buys chocolate for their child. Regardless of the strategy used, both types of ads perpetuate the notion that women are to play subservient roles is society. Although one could make the case that the phasing out of explicitly sexist ads is beneficial for all members of society, it is much more difficult to argue that covert sexism is not just as harmful. By relying on the sexualization of women to sell their products, chocolate companies are playing an active role in the continuation of gendered stereotypes.

All in all, women bear the brunt of sexism when it comes to chocolate advertisements. This paper is not meant to suggest that men are not sexualized in ads or that other groups, such as people of color, are not subject to similar negative portrayals. On the contrary, this paper serves to highlight how tropes about womanhood can be seen throughout history by analyzing chocolate ads. From the jolly housewife to the heterosexual lover to seductress, there are few depictions of women in chocolate ads that are not sexist or stereotypical. What is most baffling about these ads is the fact that showing sexist imagery of women has not and does not deter women nor men from purchasing chocolate products (Lundstrom, Sciglimpaglia 75). This suggests that whether a company uses sexual or psychological or stereotypical methods to market their products is ultimately inconsequential to their profitability. It is for this very reason that companies’ advertising tactics should be questioned and analyzed. The persistence of these tropes throughout history indicates that chocolate companies are willing to do whatever it takes to get people to buy their products, no matter the cost.


Works Cited

Hershey’s. N.d. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Kisses, n.p.

LoveSchmitten. “Priyanka Gets Wrapped in the Luxury of Schmitten Chocolates‎ in New TV Ad.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Nov. 2015. Web. 04 May 2016.

Lundstrom, William J., and Donald Sciglimpaglia. “Sex Role Portrayals in Advertising”. Journal of Marketing 41.3 (1977): 72–79. Web.

Modelstvcm3. “SEXY CHOCOLATE Commercial.” YouTube. YouTube, 28 Apr. 2009. Web. 04 May 2016.

Moss, Sarah, and Alexander Badenoch. Chocolate: A Global History. London: Reaktion, 2009. Print.

Reichert, Tom. The Erotic History of Advertising. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2003. Print.

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

Rowntree’s. N.d. Rowntree’s Chocolates, n.p.

Rowntree’s. N.d. Rowntree’s Chocolates and Cocoa, n.p.

Rowntree’s. N.d. Rowntree’s Cocoa, n.p.

Rowntree’s. N.d. Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa, n.p.

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