The average individual living in the United States encounters over 3,000 advertisements each day. Over the span of our lives, we will spend two years watching television commercials for various services, products and more (Kilbourne 2015). While the success of these advertisement campaigns varies, and is definitely subject to much discussion, it is clear that the chocolate industry has been tremendously successful in promoting its various products. In fact, chocolate has become such a desirable treat that there has even been a term coined for one who consumes significant amounts of chocolate, a “chocoholic.” However, these advertising campaigns are coming at an undeniable price. How do advertisements in general affect our public opinions, specifically surrounding issues pertaining to body image? Could it be that the prevalence of chocolate advertisements in our society may be having a negative impact on our body ideals? If so, to what extent? By closely examining research on the connection between media and eating disorders as well as analyzing a number of prevalent chocolate-related advertisements, it will become clear that the body ideals that we are creating as a society are inherently harmful and that these ideals are directly connected to the advertisements that we are exposed to on a daily basis.
Presence of Unhealthy Body Image in our Society
In order to understand how chocolate advertisements have negatively affected our societal body image, it is important to first understand what the societal standards for beauty are at the moment. Body image is defined as, “the physical and cognitive representation of the body which includes values about how we should look along many dimensions (age, size, height, color, attractiveness, etc,)” (Jade). This definition is interesting because the focus is placed on perception, not on reality. For example, very frequently individuals who are at their ideal body weight and BMI for their height and age feel like they must gain or lose weight based on societal body standards. Body image is not rooted in science or health; it is purely determined by our media. “Body types, like clothing styles, go in and out of fashion, and are promoted by advertising,” (Kilbourne 2015). This further supports the fact that body ideals are completely arbitrary.
Unfortunately, there exists a destructive paradox between ideal body image and food advertisement. We are often shown photographs of attractive, skinny, toned men and women eating fast food like McDonald’s or Burger King or Sonic. Although this paradox exists for both men and women, chocolate advertisements are generally focused towards women, so for the purpose of this analysis, we will focus mainly on women. There exists a significant gap between what we view as “beauty” and what is achievable for the average individual. As a matter of fact, only 5% of women who are considered to be healthy are able to even achieve the societal ideal that the media has created (Kilbourne 2015). What is even more frightening is that this number is consistently decreasing, leading more than 95% of females to chase an ideal that is completely impossible for them to reach. Because the ideal is unattainable, this creates a society in which women are conditioned to hate their bodies no matter what. The fact that women are bombarded with constant reminders of what they “should” look like but are not able to achieve this leads to a decrease in self-esteem. This feeling of helplessness has led to an increase in the diagnosis of Bulimia Nervosa, an eating disorder in which individuals engage in a cycle of binging and purging in an attempt to manage their weight (Jade).
Marketing’s Impact on Societal Values
With a strong understanding of the prominence of body image issues in today’s society, we can now delve a bit more into how advertisements, specifically chocolate marketing, have led to these problematic body ideals. Advertising often can have the effect of “’normalizing’ values or behaviors” of the broader society (Make Wealth History). This is interesting because many people would assume that marketing would simply reflect our current values and societal mood rather than set it as this article asserts. One question that arises is how marketing can have such a tremendous impact on the way we view the world? How can a few well-placed ads completely change societal ideals?
The answer is that it is not really a few well-placed advertisements; advertising is a multibillion-dollar market. Given that food accounts for only 12.5% of all purchases, it would stand to reason that it would not be a significant advertiser (Story and French 2004). However, the food industry is the second largest advertiser in all of consumer goods (Story and French 2004). In fact, over half of the commercials in any given hour of television programming are designated to food products (Story and French 2004). Of the average food company budget, upwards of 75% is designated specifically to advertising and marketing (Story and French 2004). This is an obscene number. Many would assume that the vast majority of these budgets would be devoted to the actual development and production of quality goods, but this is clearly not the case.
The important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, the food industry is a business and they are ultimately out to increase their profit through any means necessary. Companies have two responsibilities: one to their consumers to produce beneficial, enjoyable products and one to their shareholders to maximize profits. Unfortunately, the former will almost always take a backseat to the latter. One way that companies do this is by creating advertisements that highlight personal insecurities and inadequacies; the aim is to make consumers believe the product is important or that it will better their lives in some way, compensating for something they lack. For example, if a marketing campaign includes a model with a perfect smile, we may associate the advertised product with a great smile regardless of whether or not there is any actual connection between the product and our smiles. While companies may claim that their advertisements have no negative impacts, this is not the case. We are exposed to these images on such a constant basis that they have significant influence over our priorities as a society. Although this is an unfortunate reality, the advertisers have no reason to change because as long as these campaigns are creating demand, they will continue to employ them no matter how problematic the societal consequences.
Having discussed the implications of advertising campaigns and marketing on our cultural psyche, we can now analyze a few chocolate advertisements and how they negatively impact societal body ideals. Because most chocolate advertisements are targeted at the female-identifying population, we will focus mainly on those such marketing campaigns. However, for good measure, we will include one male implied advertisement.
In this advertisement, a few things pop out immediately. First of all, the viewer is meant to notice the extravagant curves of the model; the round shape of her buttocks, the side of her breasts peeking out. You can quite literally see the curves in her body. Additionally, it is interesting to note that you can also see her angel bones very prominently as well as the small of her back. These are all signs of skinniness, a modern desirable characteristic among both men and women. Also, there appears to be an almost natural shine to her skin as well. Finally, notice that the consumer cannot see the model’s face. Because you cannot see what she looks like, this advertisement seems to be subtly suggesting that you too could look like this woman. Since she is quite literally made of chocolate, the psychological implication is that eating chocolate can lead to this type of physique.
This advertisement is somewhat less explicit with its body image narrative, although it is most definitely still present. For one, look at the incredibly defined cheekbones of the model. This is something that is very desirable among females under today’s body ideals. Additionally, she has very slender, long fingers. Her lips are thin as well. All of this is indicative of the ever-present “thin ideal.” Additionally, her appearance is nearly flawless. This conveys the idea that chocolate allows women to achieve this impossible perfection or that women who are “perfect” eat chocolate. The advertisement works mainly through connections, much subtler than the first advertisement.
This image shows a nude woman bathing in melted chocolate. As seen in the first advertisement, she is seemingly very fit, showing very little excess fat on her figure. Her arms appear long and slender as is the rest of her body. If you look closely, you can see the outline of a very toned stomach. The chocolate is placed very strategically, accenting the model’s curves, reminiscent of the first advertisement, further strengthening the association between being thin and chocolate. The expression on her face is one of bliss and calm. Interestingly, this image seems to combine the messages of the previous two—the perfect physical presentation as well as the idea of being very “put-together.”
The fourth and final advertisement seems to vary greatly from the first three for obvious reasons: the model is a male. In this advertisement, the consumer can see the torso of a man with incredibly defined abdominal muscles. The body ideal for men is often seen as muscular, tall, and lean. This man embodies all of those characteristics. If you look at the tagline of this advertisement, it says “six packs melt a girl’s heart. Dove Chocolate.” This carries a few implications. First of all, the direct one is that since Dove is marketing a six-pack of chocolate, that the chocolate is quite desirable to women. However, this is clearly not the main focus. While the previous three advertisements can negatively impact female body image, this one is incredibly problematic for men. It insinuates that a “six pack” or defined stomach muscles are the key to any woman’s heart. Even further, it can be taken to imply that without them, it could prove difficult to find a significant other. Because abdominal muscle definition is based almost entirely on genetics and body composition, two things over which we as humans have no control, this image enforces very unhealthy body image ideals among men.
Throughout all four advertisements, there is one common idea: there is an inherent connection between chocolate and looking this good and being fit. The implication that there is any connection between chocolate and toned abs or defined cheekbones is ludicrous, and yet that is what we are being told subliminally. This perfectly demonstrates the problem with these chocolate advertisements and marketing campaign in general: they only provide a glimpse of an individual or a product. Advertisements are meant to show thirty seconds of an ideal life—a snapshot—but our lives are not isolated to thirty-second frames. We are bombarded with perfect individuals to whom we are forced to compare ourselves. But this is not a level playing field. We are essentially comparing their highlights to our behind the scenes work. We see their perfect figures and bulging muscles and assume that if we work hard enough, we can achieve those as well. However, as mentioned earlier, a vast majority of individuals are not physically able to reach the “body ideal” at all which makes enforcing it all the more dangerous.
Although modern advertising is incredibly problematic, there is a very easy fix: instead of selling bodies, stick to selling products. The focus of advertising campaigns does not have to be the individual who is representing the product. In order to demonstrate this point, observe this fantastic Cadbury advertisement. This chocolate looks absolutely delectable! It is so smooth that the light reflects off of its surface, the caramel dripping out of the hollow center. As a consumer, I would argue that this image presents the product as markedly appealing than any of the other advertisements seen above. Granted, the subliminal lifestyles that are implicated by the other four images are subconsciously appealing, but given their overwhelmingly negative societal impacts, it is more important for companies to focus on products, not people.
Chocolate companies cannot be blamed for creating these problematic body ideals, but they definitely are guilty of propagating them. By running marketing campaigns that include images such as the ones analyzed in this post, they feed on our deeply-seeded body insecurities. The more people see these images, the more desperate they become to look like the models, sometimes engaging in disordered eating because they believe that to be the only way that they can achieve these impossible body standards. By analyzing multiple chocolate advertising campaigns in conjunction with research on the prevalence of eating disorders in modern society, it becomes clear that there is an undeniable causal relationship. In fact, according to the National Eating Disorder Association, “Numerous correlational and experimental studies have linked exposure to the thin ideal in mass media to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and disordered eating among women,” (National Eating Disorder Association). Although chocolate companies are not solely responsible for propagating these ideas, they are often some of the most egregious offenders of such imagery. It is very seldom, if ever, that you will see a chocolate advertisement with a model who does not adhere to the thin ideal. However, if chocolate companies, and advertisers in general, were to focus less on the models and more on the products they are promoting, our society may begin to stray from these destructive beauty standards and allow people to forge healthy relationships with their bodies, and ultimately, themselves.
Kilbourne, Jean. “Advertising’s Toxic Effect on Eating and Body Image.” Harvard School of Public Health. (March 18, 2015). Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/advertisings-toxic-effect-on-eating-and-body-image/.
Jade, Deanne. “The Media and Eating Disorders.” National Centre for Eating Disorders. Retrieved from http://eating-disorders.org.uk/information/the-media-eating-disorders/.
“The Cultural Impact of Advertising.” Make Wealth History. Retrieved from https://makewealthhistory.org/2011/10/26/the-trouble-with-advertising-2/.
Story, Mary and French, Simone. “Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. (February 10, 2004). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC416565/.
“Media, Body Image and Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorder Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/media-body-image-and-eating-disorders.