Gender has been an important aspect of chocolate consumption since its introduction into the west. Although chocolate was mostly consumed in male-dominated coffee and chocolate houses in the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century marked the feminization of chocolate as it became associated with luxury and leisure in the domestic setting. As industrial manufacturing developed over the nineteenth century, chocolate became affordable to all, and in consequence, women were made responsible for providing ‘wholesome cocoa’ for their families (Robinson 2010). However, even today, when men consume as much chocolate as women, being a ‘chocoholic’ is a trait that is mostly identified with, by women. The portrayal of women in advertising however, often presents women in a fairly negative light. They emphasize a supposed female weakness for temptation, depicting women in a sensual setting, mesmerized by the product that brings them to near ecstasy. Moreover, the seductive nature of the women in the advertisements seem to be undeniably linked with what society believes to be the ideal of female beauty, to the point where a critical observer would be skeptical of whether the model in question would ever eat a piece of chocolate. The issue of nutritional value, is a key problem that marketers of chocolate had to overcome, as the product they are promoting is inherently high in sugar and fat, while their key audience has become increasingly more health and body conscious. This is, in part, due to the fact that today’s society has become more obsessed with outward appearance and resembling the ‘ideal’ female body, so much so that over-indulgence has become taboo. Yet, this is exactly where lies the tension of the sensual depictions of women in chocolate advertising. How is the chocolate industry getting away with using skinny models usually in a seductive setting, an advertising choice offensive to many women, to entice this very consumer base to buy their inherently fattening product?
A Brief History of Chocolate in Advertising
Chocolate advertising has always targeted women according to the different roles they play in society. In the early 20th century, prominent chocolate companies such as Rowntree and Cadbury developed entire marketing strategies around housewives and mothers. Although these advertisements most certainly did not have sexual connotations associated with them, advertisers back then already knew how to manipulate their key audience, as proven by the following statement from Rowntree’s advertising firm: “Any technique by which we can appeal to the mother’s concern for the well-being of her family or her related anxiety about being a successful mother and winning the loyalty and gratitude of her husband and children might serve as a vehicle to make her think of Rowntree’s Cocoa in the way we want her to think of it”(Robinson 2010). In contrast, chocolate, in the form of luxury assortments, was the epitome of heterosexual love and romance. Many advertisements from the early 20th century show chocolate consumption as the ultimate sign of courtship, as chocolate was to be a gift from a man to a woman and a way to “keep your sweetie sweet” (Robinson 2010). Towards the end of the 20th century however, chocolate advertising begins to target women as individuals, and not as gateways to their husbands and children, and even in the more romantic advertisements, men start to fade into the background. Simultaneously, chocolate advertising became increasingly more sexualized. The women are depicted independent of any man, and have found a new obsession: chocolate. An example of this, is the 1960 advertisement for Cadbury Flake. The actress looks flirtatiously at the chocolate and seems to be constantly battling temptation, until she finally gives in, at which point the music speeds up and becomes more high-pitched. The slogan “Cadbury’s Flake, a heaven all of your own” underscores how the product can bring a woman pleasure in the absence of a man. Although the sexual reference is made abundantly clear, this commercial is relatively tame in comparison to the more sexually explicit commercials and advertisements of the present day. What caused the chocolate industry to drastically increase the sexualization of women in their marketing strategies?
The Demonization of Chocolate & The Sin of Overindulgence
During the early 1900s, the United States was known to many as a “great candy eating nation”. Athletes swore on the performance-enhancing abilities of candy, aviators survived record-breaking flights on chocolate bars and the National Confectioners’ Association campaigned for daily candy eating. Candy advertising even framed it as a weight-loss agent. An example of this is the Curtiss Butterfinger advertisement. Their slogan “Candy…enriched with dextrose” made the added sugar seem like some kind of nutritional perk. The popularity of candy, and thus chocolate, soared as housewives and mothers were encouraged to incorporate sweets into the diets of their children. Towards the end of the 20th century however, as the negative health effects of candy became known to the public, an anti-candy movement was started in which candy was demonized (Dr. Carla Martin, Lecture March 8th). The consumption of fatty, sugary foods became taboo for women who were expected to be skinny in order to maintain their feminine allure. Eating chocolate, a product inherently high in sugar and fat, became associated with overindulgence and harmful to a women’s sexual appeal. Being overweight would signal an inability for self-constraint, something that wasn’t desired in a future spouse (Parsons 2015). Although this ideal of self-constraint and a women’s responsibility to fight off temptation wasn’t novel, in combination with the temperance movement against candy gaining popularity, it posed a real threat to the chocolate industry. Many companies moved to make their products bite-sized, in order to create the allusion of a more moderate, and thus healthier, snack. But it wasn’t enough. Marketing strategies had to find a way to distance their product from the sin of overindulgence and the taboo of food in order to entice their audience to buy the products society told them not to consume.
Chocolate as the Forbidden Fruit
Chocolate has had a long-standing relationship with love and romance, but also sex. Even in ancient times, the Aztecs and the Mayans believed that chocolate could cure impotence and, although modern science has found no significant scientific basis for this, many people today still think of chocolate as an aphrodisiac. Advertisers, looking for a different way to attract their target demographic, happily tapped into this misconception and rebranded the chocolate experience as a sexual experience. Chocolate advertising no longer promised to fulfill one’s energy needs, but vowed to provide intense pleasure and satisfy all sexual desires, portraying chocolate as a substitute for sex. Interestingly, advertisers chose to maintain the element of sin, as demonstrated by the advertisement for Ferrero Rocher. Besides the very blatant reference to Eve and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the model is holding in place, with her hand on her inner thigh, what could be bedsheets and her hair has been teased to make it appear as if she has just had sex. That being said, she is still eying the Ferrero Rocher and is fighting temptation not to grab the “forbidden fruit”, underscoring the boundless obsession women supposedly have for chocolate. The text on the left-hand side, “Are you a chocolate sinner?”, encourages the consumer to identify her craving for chocolate with (a lack of) sexual gratification, while the text “And that dream is just one sin away…” invites her to buy their product and give in to sin. The consumer is made to believe that if a model with the perfect female body gives in to temptation now and then, who is she to resist it? Although this particular advertisement takes the relationship between sin and chocolate quite literally by incorporating “The Ultimate Sin” into their campaign, references to sexual transgressions are abundant in chocolate advertising. As cleverly observed by Fahim, advertisers have “turned chocolate into a sexual, self-indulgent, private experience that invokes a taboo similar to that of masturbation” (Fahim 2010). It might seem superfluous to replace one taboo, that of food and overindulgence, with another taboo, that of self-indulgence, if the ultimate plan is to maintain the ‘sin’ aspect of consuming chocolate. But these taboos have very different, if not contrasting, connotations in today’s society. Although both are associated with losing control and the inability for self-restraint, overindulgence in food is thought to harm a women’s feminine appeal by harming her figure, while the sexual taboo brings her more in touch with her femininity through sexual satisfaction. The fattening nature of chocolate would seem to make it impossible to advertise it as a product that would make women more attractive. Nevertheless, advertisers try to persuade women into thinking that consuming chocolate can enhance their femininity while it is known to do the opposite.
The taboos are inherently linked. Nevertheless, the chocolate industry has been able to emphasize one, while pushing the other to the background. But there is another aspect as to why it’s so surprising the chocolate industry is successful in its usage of sexual references in its marketing strategies. Research has shown that women have a marked negative response to sexually explicit images in advertising, questioning the old saying that sex sells (Dahl 2009). Dahl et al. argue that this is the case because advertisements with blatant sexual references place sex outside of the whelm of a committed relationship, which is not in line with most women’s perceptions of sex. However, they found that if the sexual references in the ad could be seen in a broader context related to a committed relationship, rather than casual, non-emotional sex, through subtle cues such as gift-giving, the response would be less negative. Interestingly, that is exactly what the chocolate industry moved away from in targeting women. Ads have become more individualistic and chocolate is less frequently represented as the token of courtship and something that has to be gifted by a man. Instead they portray chocolate as a substitute for sex through their sexually explicit campaigns. In contrast, the same study showed that men had no issues with gratuitous sexual references and in consequence, chocolate, and its characteristic association with sex, has been used to promote male products virtually unrelated to chocolate. For instance, in an ad for Axe Dark Temptation, the deodorant turns the man into a chocolate man, after which he is virtually assaulted by the women he encounters. Although the ad is clearly targeted towards men, it still shows women to be obsessed by chocolate, unable to restrain themselves from getting their fix and taking a bite out of this chocolate man. This idea is perpetuated by the name, “Axe Dark Temptation”, further implying that women won’t be able to resist men wearing this deodorant, like they are unable to resist chocolate. There is even a scene in which women working out in the gym, jump off their treadmills in order to get a glimpse of the chocolate man, once again emphasizing that when chocolate is presented in a sexual setting, women are portrayed to forget all about the harmful effects chocolate may have on their figure, effects society tells them to be mindful of.
Creating ‘Chocoholics’ Everywhere
Although chocolate marketing efforts have targeted predominantly women since the beginning of the 20th century, chocolate advertising has undergone drastic transformation since then. While the early 1900s marked the time of appealing to women’s more wholesome roles as mothers, housewives, or as the subject of heterosexual courtship, contemporary chocolate advertisements have consistently portrayed women as irrational and obsessed, always fighting and losing to temptation. Chocolate advertising has become increasingly more sexualized, despite the fact that research has shown that women seem to have an aversion for sexually explicit images in advertising. Nevertheless, the chocolate industry seems to be succeeding in persuading women to buy their products, as proven by the many self-proclaimed ‘chocoholics’ out there. Moreover, they’ve been able to convince their key demographic that their product will enhance their femininity through its connotation with sexual satisfaction, by eating a product that has also been demonized for causing women to lose their female figures, and thus their sex appeal. To complicate the already complex relationship even further, the models used in the ads and commercials are often thought to represent the ideal female body. A skeptical observer would question whether these models have ever even tasted the product they are selling. But perhaps this further reinforces women to buy the chocolate. If the gorgeous, slim woman is able to enjoy the occasional chocolate and still looks the way she does, then why couldn’t the consumer? One could imagine that the relationship is even stronger than that, in which case the consumer might think that the model looks the way she does, because she eats the product she is selling. One way or another, the chocolate industry has found a way to emphasize one taboo, while letting the other fade into the background, and although both taboos seem to be inherently united in their product, women all around the Western world are falling for it.
Dahl, Darren., Sengupta, Jaideep, Vohs, Kathleen. 2009. Sex in Advertising: Gender Differences and the Role of Relationship Commitment. Journal of Consumer Research Gainesville: 36(2): 15-231
Fahim, Jamal. 2010. Beyond Cravings: Gender and Class Desires in Chocolate Marketing. Sociology Student Scholarship. http://scholar.oxy.edu/sociology_student/3
Martin, Carla. 2017. Lecture March 8th – The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market.
Parsons, Julie. 2015. Gender, Class and Food – Families, Bodies and Health. pp. 108-133. Print.
Robertson, Emma. 2010. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. pp. 1-131. Print.