Bonjour dessert: tout ce que les femmes désirent. The hyperlinked advertisement shows a “sexy” shirtless man, whose apron barely covers him, laboring to make chocolate. The background music and his tone as he whispers French are meant to arouse the female consumer. French is the language of love, and as the male actor concludes in French, Bonjour Dessert are all a woman desires to have. The commercial is actually for a Russian audience and was televised in Bulgaria. While the men are working to produce the chocolate, it seems to be for the consumption of women.
Chocolate consumption can refer to the purchase and eating of chocolate (Fahim 2010). While women eat slightly more chocolate than men (91% versus 87% respectively), the chocolate industry heavily targets women in its advertising (Mintel Research in CNN 2012). Chocolate is marketed as sexy, and women exude lust in chocolate advertisements as seen in the advertisement below. I decided to explore the legitimacy of these claims from the perspective of men. Specifically, how does chocolate marketing influence men’s role in women’s consumption of chocolate? I interviewed seven male students who responded to the following up: a male who has ever bought chocolate for a significant other. I will situate my findings in the appropriate historical and contemporary contexts. All names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of my respondents. Based on my analysis, men’s purchase of chocolate is not in direct response to media and marketing influences. Instead, men attribute their motivation to purchase chocolate for significant others because of their semiotic understanding of the product and the expressed needs of their partners, coupled with its affordability.
Chocolate as a romantic gesture
Chocolate is associated with romance or love. When asked about the presence of chocolate in his relationship, John described how he and his girlfriend “once went to the taza chocolate factory; it was an entire date around chocolate. I thought it was a nice date. There was a festival with free chocolate, hot chocolate [and] I bought some. Essentially, chocolate serves as a long memory of that date which was cool”. His girlfriend loves chocolate, but he does not particularly indulge in it. Yet, he planned that date to show his girlfriend that he could be interested in the things that bring her joy. It was a chance for him to be romantic in his actions besides saying I love you. The semiotic association of chocolate with love naturally predates John and all of my respondents.
Marriage vows between a couple in ancient Mayan civilization
In addition to exchanging vows, it was customary for a bride and groom in ancient Mayan civilization to give each other five cacao beans in order to finalize their marriage process (Coe 2013:61). As depicted in the photograph above, cacao beans were integral to to relationships in Mesoamerica and chocolate continues to be a placeholder in that sense. For example, Cadbury invented the heart-shaped box of Valentine’s chocolates in 1861 (Coe 2013:243). The commercialization of Valentine’s Day as a holiday around love has persisted until today. Purchasing a heart-shaped box of chocolates has evolved into a commonplace display of affection for a significant other. More importantly, the box is filled with chocolates, which my respondents associated with love. In his thesis, Fahim describes a Hershey’s commercial in which the girlfriend is upset with her boyfriend. She starts to warm up to him when he offers her Hershey’s kisses. The Hershey’s kisses are how he convinces his girlfriend to listen to him and show him affection (Fahim 2010). I asked respondents to contextualize their chocolate gift-giving experiences. Matt explained “If I meet someone for the first time and I’m interested, I might get a Lindt chocolate bar because it’s still high quality but it’s not the deepest and truest thing to my heart”. Matt associates the actual chocolate with romance, and does not value “cliché packaging” like the heart-shaped box. The more interested he is in someone, the higher the quality chocolate he offers her. Because of this, he would not gift a girl Hershey’s chocolate kisses. Nevertheless, the principle of offering chocolate as a romantic gesture persists although Matt and other respondents do not turn to specific brands because of their advertising. Overall, the amount of care and effort put into impressing the potential significant other speaks to his semiotic understanding of chocolate with romance.
Chocolate as comfort food
Respondents recalled they were likely to purchase chocolate for their girlfriends when the latter needed to be comforted. Brian noted that “whenever [his girlfriend’s] studying, whenever she’s stressed, chocolate is just a go-to. It tastes good, makes her happy, [and in turn] makes me happy”. Chocolate brings relief to his girlfriend in times of stress and provides her with energy. In the nineteenth century, chocolate was marketed to mothers as essential to keeping a healthy family. For example, medicinal recipes involved cocoa and women were meant to make these concoctions, not consume them. Such recipes were perceived solutions to physical ailments like stomach aches and fevers (Grivetti and Shapiro 2009:71). Nowadays, women consume chocolate to calm down. Stressing out or worrying too much can be detrimental to one’s health. So it is interesting to trace the trajectory of chocolate from a remedy to physical illnesses to a potential solution of psychological ones. In the same vein, the gender norms associated with chocolate also changed. Women would traditionally prepare the chocolate-infused medicine for men or their children, but not themselves as it was considered “sinful”. Men now gift chocolate to women to bring them comfort, which signals a change in the target audience for the dietary consumption of chocolate.
Furthermore, I was interested in what sort of chocolate respondents purchased. John admitted his girlfriend likes dark chocolate so he either gets her Dove Dark Chocolate or Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate. Connor always purchases Ghirardelli Raspberry and Dark Chocolate Bar for his girlfriend. Sean recalled, “the particular person I have in mind, she really loved chocolate. So that’s why I bought her chocolate instead of flowers [to help her through a rough time]”. My respondents’ primary motivation for purchasing chocolate to provide comfort was because their girlfriends explicitly said they enjoyed chocolate. They were not consciously responding to chocolate marketing ads. Instead, they were simply trying to be great partners because purchasing chocolate was not an adventure or exploration. Rather than in response to media attempts to sway chocolate consumption, the respondents bought chocolate merely what their significant others already had a strong preference for.
Chocolate is affordable
Overall, chocolate is an accessible treat. I asked respondents why they purchased chocolate for significant others. Six of the seven respondents purchase chocolate for their significant other because it is affordable. John explained that “chocolate is a small constant reminder that I care about her and want her to be happy. I’m willing to pay four bucks for two weeks worth of chocolate to make that point”. Chocolate was not always this affordable. The Industrial Revolution was instrumental to the drop in pricing because of drastic improvements in four areas of manufacturing: preservation, mechanization, retail/wholesale and transportation (Goody 2013:85). These improvements exponentially increased the number of manufactured foods, which in turn made them more accessible and affordable to the average shopper.
Beyond manufacturing improvements, the production of cacao also influence the supply chain. The cacao-chocolate industry has a long history of ethical problems in its supply chain as it pertains to forced labor and slavery on cacao plantations. From slavery in Latin America to forced labor in Sao Tome and Principe to “the worst forms of child labor” in Ivory Coast, the chocolate we consume is often tainted (Coe 2013:192; Mintz 1985:48-50; Off 2006: 122). Cacao is a commodity that large chocolate manufacturers can buy in huge amounts and farmers are not involved in the price-setting discussions. Furthermore, farmers are not always paid on time and therefore struggle to wholly rely on cacao production to make ends meet (Martin Lecture 2017). The respondents were neither aware of nor concerned with the labor abuses and low standard of living of cacao farmers. Respondents did not seek to buy ethically-sourced chocolate and did not look for logos like FairTrade certification. The one respondent who arguably spent more than “four bucks on chocolate” valued the quality of the chocolate he purchased for significant others. Particularly, he would procure Limonoro Sorrento Madagascar-Tohisoa, an exquisite Italian chocolate bar with single-sourced cacao from Madagascar (pictured to the right). Still, his primary motivation for purchasing such chocolate was the quality of the chocolate and not its ethical considerations. Therefore acquiring it at a lower price compared to bean-to-bar chocolate makers. There are attempts to ethically source chocolate through certifications like FairTrade, Rainforest Alliance Certified and UTZ Certified . Yet, consumers are largely unaware of the distinctions and from my small sample size, not worried about the ramifications of their dollars.
Food for thought?
None of my respondents attribute their purchase of chocolate for significant others to successful chocolate marketing. When asked why they thought chocolate was in fact their “go-to treat” for their girlfriends John argued, “if my girlfriend was into licorice, I would always have a supply of licorice in my room [instead of chocolate]. I just want to make her happy”. According to John, chocolate was not the inherent solution to romance or comfort. Instead, it was because his partner explicitly suggested she was into it that he bought it for her. For the most part, my respondents bought chocolate with the direct intent to please their girlfriends. This explains why they stuck to the one brand of chocolate they knew would elicit joy from their girlfriends, whether it was Ferrero Rocher or Dove Dark Chocolate. Chocolate marketing did not influence them to purchase the chocolate that a specific advertisement claimed would help men score points with women. While this key distinction important in men’s understanding of their role in women’s consumption, I cannot fully argue that chocolate marketing played no role in men’s semiotic understanding of chocolate.
While respondents did not buy the advertised chocolate, chocolate marketing as it stands today reinforces and rewards the notion that men should purchase chocolate for women’s consumption. Therefore, there is a possibility that chocolate marketing subconsciously influenced my respondents to feel affirmed in their chocolate consumption and therefore continue purchasing chocolate for their girlfriends. I understand that there are limits to my sample of Harvard students and sample size of seven and I cannot make generalizations on the underlying factors of men’s purchases. Furthermore, the scope of paper is heteronormative because all male respondents had female significant others. Respondents also assumed significant other referred to a girlfriend as opposed to a close friend of any gender.
Overall, this blog post serves as an exploration of men’s understanding of their role in women’s dietary consumption of chocolate, especially when they are in a relationship. My respondents believed purchasing chocolate was an easy and affordable way for them to brighten their girlfriends’ moods. They also purchase it because their girlfriends explicitly asked for chocolate. They did not purchase chocolate as a direct response to chocolate marketing efforts. Still, it does not mean chocolate marketing cannot subconsciously affirm men’s decision to purchase chocolate. The investigation begs the question of women’s motivating factors to consume chocolate and if chocolate marketing efforts play a more salient role in their perspective.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Fahim, Jamal, “Beyond Cravings: Gender and Class Desires in Chocolate Marketing” (2010). Sociology Student Scholarship. http://scholar.oxy.edu/sociology_student/3
Grivetti, Louis and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Wiley, 2009.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: The New Press, 2006
Advertisement of woman eating chocolate
Bonjour YouTube commercial
Limonoro Sorrento Madagascar Chocolate