Cadbury: The Canary in an Unethical Coal Mine

Any company that can admit to contaminating a food product, and supporting forced labor and still retain the leading market share must understand its customers. For this reason, Cadbury’s advertisements may offer a unique perspective into European consumer culture during the late 1980s and early 1900s. Advertisements candidly portray the desires of their consumer base. For this reason Cadbury’s advertisements are a window into English consumer values. I argue that the Cadbury Company’s advertisements capture nineteenth century consumer culture as one that conflated personal purity with ethical behavior. Additionally these values inadvertently supported forced labor long after the official abolition of slavery.

Victorian era consumers were highly concerned with the idea of purity. As lower economic classes attained access to previously unattainable foods such as chocolate and tea, producers contaminated the foods with filler ingredients to maximize profits. In 1850, England’s newly created Health Commission found that, 39 of 70 chocolate samples contained red ocher, a color obtained from ground bricks. While most samples revealed the addition of starches from potatoes and various grains. The passage of the “British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and the Adulteration of food act of 1872, suggests that the British public were highly concerned with the purity of their foods (Coe, 2013).

Cadbury became England’s chocolate in the in the late 1800s and early 1900s through an aggressive advertising campaign that emphasized purity. Cadbury, though also implicated in starch contamination, understood customer concerns and adeptly rebranded as the only company that could guarantee purity (Coe, 2013).

Cadbury's_Cocoa_advert_with_rower_1885 (1)
An 1885 advertisement for cadbury cocoa

The above advertisement captures the ideals and aspirations of the English consumer in the late 1800s. The strapping rower, an icon of English vitality enjoys a day of leisure watching boat races. He holds his cup of Cadbury cocoa at the center of the image. By framing the cocoa, on two sides with the rower’s spotless white pants and shirt, and on the third side with the woman’s impossibly pale face, the artist emphasizes the purity associated with the beverage. The advertisement’s sub header, “Guaranteed Pure and Soluble,” explicitly restates the focus on purity. Because Cadbury captured consumer’s interest in purity, they were able to out compete Fry’s, an older company that dominated the market in the early 1800s.

Frys_five_boys_milk_chocolate
Fry’s 1910, milk chocolate advertisement

The above advertisement demonstrates a different understanding of English consumer values during the time. Fry’s, one of the first English chocolate companies sold 2.5 times more chocolate than Cadbury in 1870. However Cadbury won the hearts of English men and women, largely through advertising, and out sold Fry’s at the turn of the century (Fitzgerald, 2006). Fry’s emphasized nostalgia for childhood in their advertisement. A small girl holds a box with five portraits describing the emotions associated with chocolate consumption. Cadbury’s market success suggests that, English consumers preferred assurances about purity to a trip down memory lane.

Consumers conflated product purity with ethical behavior. Cadbury and Fry, both Quaker chocolate makers, were lauded for their ethical behavior. Temperance campaigns swept over the UK during the Victorian era. As per capita beer consumption decreased, consumers turned to chocolate for comestible indulgence. One strategy of the temperance movement was to tie ethical and spiritual purity to the purity of a diet. The messaging was of course focused on reducing alcohol consumption, but this rhetoric likely spilled over into other food consumption behaviors. Therefore, Cadbury’s Quaker image as evidenced by their “ideal,” and importantly ,dry village, Bournvile appealed to consumers of the day (Fitzgerald 2006; Johnson and Pochmara 2016).

However as consumers and companies focused on purity standards, horrific human rights abuses went over looked. Both advertisements focus on the consumer and the ritual of consumption. In a way these advertisements capture what the English population wanted to see in their consumer products. However even more informative are the ideas consumers did not want to portrayed in their advertisements. Any reference to location of origin, or producers is glaringly absent in advertisements of the day.

Ghana_Elmina_Castle_Slave_Holding_Cell_(2)
A prison cell used to hold enslaved people before their journey to Sao Tome or Principe

The above picture is of a prison in Elmina Castle, used to hold enslaved people before their forced voyage to a life of forced labor. Elmina was often the last place an enslaved person, captured in Angola, would set foot on the mainland (Finley 2004). Cadbury, Fry’s and other English chocolate makers bought cacao from Portuguese cacao plantations that depended on forced labor on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe. Though the Portuguese called this system, indentured servitude or “Servical,” a report by journalist Henry Nevinson, made it clear that Servical was indistinguishable from slavery. Though England outlawed slavery in 1833, Cadbury, the supposed icon of Victorian business ethics had been providing the English people chocolate made from cacao farmed by enslaved people as late as 1907. After an attempt at reparations, Cadbury and other English chocolate makers boycotted the islands of Sao Tome and Principe (Martin, 2017). However little changed on the islands, as the Hershey Company filled the consumer void left by the English companies. I contend that consumer interest focused so heavily on ideas of purity that consumers associated purity with ethical process and were therefore slow to examine the supply chain of their favorite chocolate.

Today chocolate companies often differentiate their products by advertising their location of origin. Additionally, fair trade products often command price premiums for ensuring ethical process. This expansion of consumer options suggests that consumers value ethical process as much as they value nutritional quality or taste. However, modern consumers we cannot forget the lessons of Victorian era chocolate makers. We must constantly investigate the supply chains of our favorite products to reduce our contribution to forced labor. Follow the below link to learn how many enslaved people are involved in producing your favorite products.

Find out how your consumption connects you to slavery.

 

Bibliography

Cadbury’s Advert with Rower 1885. 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Finley, Cheryl. 2004. “Authenticating Dungeons, Whitewashing Castles: The Former Sites of the Slave Trade on the Ghanaian Coast.” Architecture and Tourism.

Fitzgerald, Robert. 2006. “Products , Firms and Consumption : Cadbury and the Development of Marketing , 1900 – 1939 Products , Firms and Consumption : Cadbury and the” 6791 (May). doi:10.1080/00076790500132977.

Fry’s Five Boys . 2005. Wikimedia Commons.

Ghana Elmina Castle Slave Holding Cell. Wikimedia, Wikimedia Commons

Johnson, Amelia E, and Anna Pochmara. 2016. “Tropes of Temperance , Specters of Naturalism : Tropología de La Abstinencia Y Fantasmas Del Naturalismo En Clarence and Corinne de Amelia E . Johnson” 2: 45–62.

Martin, Carla. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Lecture, Chocolate Lecture, Cambridge, March 01, 2017.

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