Model Firms and Firm Models: Fashion, Africa, and Chocolate.

Africa sells, there is not any doubt. It would be hard to estimate the time lag between Livingstone hacking his way through the jungle and the first pretty blonde in a pith helmet, posed in the swath of jungle immediately behind him, selling some consumable product; selling the very idea of Africa. Real life in Africa, offline and out of camera range, is still more than a little bit of a mystery. We consider here the exploitation of Africa and the simultaneous advertisement of the exploitation of Africa: what it means for a model to be authentic, what it means for a product to be modern, the moral responsibilities of a corporation, and how the modern chocolate bar fits into the grand scheme of all these things.

The First Chocolate Advertising.

The chocolate business is an old business, as in thirty-five centuries old. Because of the limited suitability of the cocoa tree to anywhere but the most humid and hottest part of the tropics, cocoa was a trade product from the very beginning. In Central America and the south of Mexico elaborate trade routes sprung up and cocoa was also acquired by theft and by warfare; these cocoa proto-businesses and their ethics make for an interesting comparison or even parallel to what came later. The Princeton Vase (Mayan, 8th century AD) and other antiquities depict fashionably attired and accessorized young women caught in various poses of making chocolate, and while not advertisements, they are a related form; they are examples or models connecting the food product chocolate with its various meanings. The illustrations on these early ceramic vessels can exemplify class aspirations, luxury, conspicuous consumption, and ritual. In any case, the total meaning of chocolate is not yet separated from its act of production.

Privatization and Modernization in the New World.

It was not long after conquest of the New World that the existing cocoa businesses “merged” with the Spanish enterprises, and not long after that the cocoa trade was privatized and duly licensed by the Viceroyalty. Through forced labor, warfare, European diseases, and lack of foresight the Spanish began to lose their cocoa producers and consumers at an ever increasing rate; within a century 90% of the Preconquest indigenous population was gone. Meanwhile the Spanish modernized and in their view improved the indigenous chocolate recipes, primarily through the substitution of their own spices and the addition of more and more sugar. Chocolate at this time began to lose the religious and ritual meanings it carried for the native peoples. Likewise, since here we will be interested in clothing and fashion, we note how the Spanish began a simultaneous modernization of the clothing of the indigenous peoples, for example imposing their ideas of Christian modesty, etc. on clothing that already carried religious or cultural meanings for the natives. An odd example is the banishing of a transparent huipil (blouse) worn by women in southern Mexico; for the indigenas this look had only the connotation of formality, but thanks to the Spanish, the outlawed blouse became a headdress with sleeves intact (Covarrubias, 1954).

As time went by the New World was carved out into Spanish, English, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies and the (now mostly inferior) cocoa stock was greatly expanded. With eyes cast back across the Atlantic, new markets and uses for chocolate were developed in Europe. Already at this time the necessary connection of the idea of “modernity” with evolution and civilization is called into question. At the level of the chocolate recipe, the indigenous recipes with their greater palette of spices and flavors had more in common with today’s artisanal chocolate than the Spanish recipes (Presilla, 2009).

While entire cultures were erased in the New World, it is important to note that the indigenous peoples also willingly adopted some materials and aspects of European culture, and not every effect of colonization was automatically negative and for the worse. For example, the native peoples incorporated many foods brought from Europe into their own kitchens; likewise Spanish sheep and wool, the backstrap loom, and European techniques of construction enabled new heights of creative expression in the native clothing (Schevill, 1986). Most importantly, modernized indigenous food and clothing often became the “traditional” food and clothing in a natural and inevitable process one author has called “cultural authentification” (Rabine, 2002).

The Rise of the Model.

From the 16th century onwards, as New World products began to pour back to the European markets, the chocolate drink began its infiltration of the upper class parlor and likewise the representational painting of the age. Once again, pre the age of advertising, the beautiful young woman fair of skin and fair of French or French-inspired fashion, is caught in the act of drinking or preparing chocolate; no longer nameless she is now the Artist’s Model; hardly mute, her clothing and her chocolate consumption signal her social status, her economic status, and her taste for the good life. If we enquire into her “authenticity,” she is a real young woman in a studio, possibly British or Italian or Spanish, possibly a professional model or a countess or a maid. She is also an organic synthesis of the woman who posed and the artist who posed her. With an expressively arched hand placed here, a thumb hidden there, the dress draped just so, weight placed on this leg and not that one, in a “pantomimic gesture” (Mortensen, 1956, p. 104), she is more real than a real woman in a real room. Like the chocolate that is pressed, beaten and heated into a pleasing form that is beyond the natural, the model is an improvement on nature and engenders the aspirational aspect of the painting. The viewer that wears the same dress and drinks the same chocolate becomes the particular woman in the painting; the artist’s model is the viewer’s “future self” (reference needed).

And on to Africa.

From the 16th century onwards the cocoa trade blossomed: Guns, liquor, shackles, and all manner of manufactured goods flowed to African ports, labor in the form of Africans flowed to the New World cocoa fields, and cocoa flowed back to Europe to complete the vicious circle. African slaves now substituted for the indigenous labor force mostly exterminated in the colonization. Producers and consumers were now widely separated in geography and conscience; black hands cut cocoa pods from trees in sweltering heat while porcelain white hands rested on sterling cups of chocolate in the drawing rooms of Europe. In time with great blights of disease in the New World cocoa fields, occasional slave rebellions against greatly outnumbered plantation masters, and continually increasing world-wide competition, the forced export of so much African labor became so economically unviable it was abolished in late 19th century resignation. At this time ships were pointed to the new colonies in Africa. In one sense, this was following a natural trail along an equator that provided the necessary growing conditions for cocoa; in another sense since Africans could no longer be brought to the plantations by force, the plantations would now be brought to the Africans. Direct management of slave or slave-like labor was eventually outsourced when planters became “buyers”.

The Rise of the Model Firm.

Good business or bad business? Before the 19th century the question could scarcely be asked, as any business enterprise in cocoa necessarily involved human slavery in one form or another. The moral fragility of such a long supply chain stretching back across an ocean that had barely just been crossed in the 16th century should be obvious; by the 19th century tarnishing of the chain at both ends was clearly visible. On the one end were the graves of 10-15 million Africans hauled to the New World to work in the cocoa and other plantations, on the other end of the chain was ever increasing adulteration of factory-made chocolate to increase profits. In the midst of all this, as modern society became increasingly more concerned with labor and the other conditions of production, and companies being reflections of the society at large, the chocolate trade (which by now was concentrated into a small number of very large companies) set out to improve the safety of their products and the conditions of their labor force. British companies like Rowntree and Cadbury and their counterparts in other countries sought to become “model firms” (Robertson, 2009, p. 7).

The earliest model firms, the companies of William Cadbury and Rowntree in particular, had their work cut out for them, but the literature on these two companies shows leaders with genuine empathy for their producers/laborers in Africa (Higgs, 2012; Satre, 2005). By the 19th century the cocoa business was predicated on modern advertising, and the 20th century spirit of reform which sought to unite, in a way, the production and consumption of chocolate was balanced by the nature of advertising to conceal the conditions of production. Again it was often up to the female model (freed at last from the canvas, and readily relocatable to a magazine photo or a tin of cocoa), to articulate new meanings for chocolate. In early Rowntree advertisements pretty native girls in neatly pressed exotic garb carried baskets on their heads through cocoa fields (Robertson, 2009). This model was a type from the early 20th century: in America she dressed as a Hawaiian maiden, in Mexico she wore the Tehuana skirt and roses in her hair, and in South America the basket of cocoa became a basket of fruit. She danced her way across the first glossy magazines and the first dim cinema screens, associating products like chocolate with the hard-to-get and the exotic. Not since the Mayan chocolate vessels described above had the model represented the actual producer of the chocolate (for better or worse); because she was fashionably dressed, she represented also the fashionable young woman consumer, bringing the two a little closer than they were before. This kind of advertisement, however, can never represent the actual conditions of production because of the very nature of the fashion system: fashion never refers to any reality and only refers to itself (Barthes, 1983).


We recall that chocolate was a luxury and a status drink that eventually trickled down through the classes, acquiring new meanings along the way. Models in chocolate advertising changed their clothes accordingly. Later, beautiful and healthy young female models on bicycles or on the way to tennis matches consumed chocolate, the health food (Kit Kat bar); as chocolate by this time was mostly sugar, and sugar at this time was still considered a healthy source of calories, the authenticity of the advertisements was not automatically a problem. Chocolate advertisements in this vein continued on through the golden age of women’s magazines and into the 1970s. Again, the model in a woman’s magazine represented the consumer’s better and future self: a better mother, a better wife, or a healthier and more alluring woman.

Ghana Today.

Above we have made only the roughest sketch of the idea of the model in the history of chocolate advertising; we conclude with a 2005 advertising campaign of the Divine Chocolate company (Britain), which appeared in magazines such as Elle, Cosmopolitan, etc. The models used are described as owners of their own cocoa farms and part owners of the Divine Chocolate company (

In the first advertisement a woman poses in a Ghana cocoa field in the noon day sun in a Western manner: her weight shifts to one leg as her hip slides out to the side, as her head tilts to the same side in a curve associated with the 18th century painter Hogarth (and used ever since in modeling). We note that Western magazines like Elle and Cosmopolitan are well known in the cities of West Africa and are frequent sources for custom dress making, while larger cities sponsor European-style fashion shows (Rabine, 2002). The off-the-shoulder dress in a yellow and green floral print is tailored in a European style, and described as a Holland print (i.e. literally from Holland) brought over from England by the advertising agency.

West Africa sets the fashion, i.e. the traditional fashion, for much of Africa, even though use of the word “traditional” is problematic. Most of what is considered traditional today by historians of dress, or better yet Africans themselves, are materials and styles that have been brought from one place to another. World-wide, the familiar cuts are long squares and rectangles with dignified straight cuts. Most traditional clothing, however, is made in one-offs by small tailoring shops who use curvilinear Western cuts; by now this is considered to be traditional. Traditional prints are dyed by hand using stitch resist (tie dye), flour resist, or wax resist methods. From the beginning of the 19th century to the present, the most sought-after materials are the wax resist dyed fabrics brought in immense quantities from Holland, and the Holland print is considered to be the most traditional and most African one can get (Rabine, 2002). Thus the model in the advertisement is actually traditionally dressed.

The Divine Chocolate ad is such a great contrast with the history of labor conditions in the cocoa trade that it gives one pause, and maybe some hope for the future. The advertising campaign at long last connects chocolate buyers with the actual producers in the field, and that cannot be but a good thing. The women may be artificially lighted and a stylist may be standing just outside of the frame, but the advertisement still manages to capture a small part of their real lives. The women seem healthy and happy, and they are beautiful by any standard. The world will only get smaller as time passes, and contacts get closer and closer, and through this West African cocoa farmers stand a chance to gain in real power and improve the conditions of their lives.


Barthes, R. (1983). The fashion system. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Coe, M. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London, England: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.
Covarrubias, M. (1954). Mexico South: the Isthmus of Tehauntepec. New York, NY: Knopf.
Higgs, C. (2012). Chocolate Islands. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Leissle, K. (2012). Cosmopolitan cocoa farmers: refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate advertisements. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 24(2), 121-139.
Mintz, S. (1985). Sweetness and power. New York, NY: Penguin.
Mortensen, W. (1956). How to pose the model. New York, NY: Ziff-Davis.
Powis, T. (2008). The origins of cacao use in Mesoamerica. Mexicon [sic], 30, 35-38.
Presilla, M. (2009). The new taste of chocolate. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Rabine, L. (2002). The global circulation of African fashion. Oxford, England: Berg.
Robertson, E. (2009). Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press.
Satre, L. (2005). Chocolate on trial: slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Athens, OH: Ohio University
Shevill, M. (1986). Costume as communication. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

** Ava Gardner in Helen Rose dress (C) 1953 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, “The cup of chocolate” by Pierre-August Renoir (1878) is in the public domain, dark-skinned beauty ad and bicycle model ad are in the public domain, “Women with attitude” ad (C) 2005 by Divine Chocolate.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s