A Survey Investigating Gendered Advertising in Chocolate

Introduction and Historical Context

Chocolate has long been associated with gender and sex; in particular, narratives and advertisements regarding chocolate have sexualized women. Records dating back to the Guatemalan Inquisition of the sixteenth century note that that women were accused of using chocolate to bewitch men into sexual submission (Grivetti and Shapiro 5999). This narrative makes it is clear that chocolate had sexual associations with women and that chocolate was a tool for women to control men. As chocolate entered the European market, witchcraft-related connections between women and chocolate faded, and luxurious self-indulgence and irresistibility toward chocolate began to take shape. Van Houten’s defatting process – an 1828 invention – brought on the development of bonbons, which were quickly associated with sexuality (Grivetti and Shapiro 6077). Popular women’s magazines of the nineteenth century were behind this association, using media to sexualize the sweet morsels. In fact, James Wadsworth claimed that chocolate would make women “… long for you know what, [i]f they but taste chocolate” (Wadsworth 137). This admittedly grotesque assertion stems from the idea that women have a higher temptation for luxurious things and self-indulgence, which in turn increased media-driven sexual desire for bonbons (Grivetti and Shapiro 6097).

Female cookbook writers also contributed to the sexualization of chocolate in the nineteenth century. Writers associated chocolate with decadence, sin, and femininity. Interestingly, the idea of chocolate as a ‘sinful pleasure’ has maintained relevance to the present-day (Grivetti and Shapiro 6057). During the mid-1800s, boxes of chocolate were designed to appeal to women. Designers added lacey frills, suggestive pictures, and romantic imagery (Grivetti and Shapiro 6058). Eventually, advertisers turned to more evocative forms of marketing. For example, some French chocolate companies resorted to overt sexuality, e.g. depictions of women in lingerie and high heels, to advertise chocolate. Overt sexuality in chocolate advertising dissipated during the first half of the twentieth century, only to make a reappearance after the Second World War (Robertson 10).

Early twentieth century advertisements took a different, more wholesome approach to target female consumers. Rowntree advertisements dating back to the 1930s focused on mothers as the target consumer-base; Rowntree’s ‘Special Mothers Campaign’ initiated this push (Robertson 20).

Image 1: Rowntree’s 1930s advertisement that focuses on family strength (source: http://www.advertisementsindia.com/2011/05/rowntrees-cocoa/)

Marketers honed in on this demographic, because families with children were the chief buying agents of chocolate. Women typically brought food into the home (Robertson 21). Chocolate companies continued to paint the loveable housewife as their primary target consumers through the 1950s – healthy, happy children and satisfied husbands often accompanying them. The roles of women in chocolate ads began to expand post-wartime. Women entered the workplace in chocolate ads, and they became more explicitly sexualized during the 1940s. Rowntree’s Judy, for example, wore skimpy outfits and delivered more seductive glares (Robertson 31).

Image 2: Rowntree’s Judy sporting hot pants and tight-fitting shirt (source: https://easyontheeye2.wordpress.com/packaging/judy-says-happy-easter/)

From that point on, chocolate advertisers focused on heterosexual love as a purchasing point for chocolate. Later, in the 1950s, women in advertisements became obsessed with chocolate (Martin). One of the most salient traditions in female chocolate advertisement is the woman being seduced by chocolate (Martin). It appears that advertisers began to diverge from the idea that female purchasers had the power, and instead that men wishing to court these irrational women ought to lure them in with irresistible chocolate. This vision of women as tempted by the powers of chocolate has permeated the chocolate ad space, culminating with hyper-sexualized images of women and chocolate of the last decade. 

Godiva image 3
Image 3: Sensual Godiva ad featuring young woman with chocolate on breast, 2004 (source: http://files.coloribus.com/files/adsarchive/part_648/6481905)

Fascination and focus on feminine sexuality and chocolate begs one to question the effectiveness on such advertising practices. Are women actually more inclined than men to enjoy chocolate? Are women more likely than men to purchase chocolate? Do the wrappers around chocolates truly make or break the purchase decision for women more than men? In order to explore these questions, I conducted a survey with 34 participants (21 women and 13 men) to find gender differences in the consumption of chocolate. Additionally, I explored the efficacy of chocolate advertising via wrappers to observe if they sway participants’ opinions of the chocolates.


Members of the Harvard community were recruited to conduct the study. The population of Quincy House was invited, as were the Harvard Men’s Swimming and Diving Team, members of Eleganza Show, Expressions Dance Company, and the Fly Club (For Gentlemen). I attempted to make the survey known to as many groups that I am involved in to get as close to a random sample as possible. Once those interested returned inquiries with availability, I put equal numbers of men and women in time slots. Naturally, Harvard students did not follow these time slots, so the ratio of men and women was skewed, as was the number of participants in each iteration (the first iteration – discussed in further detail below – had 12 participants (3 men and 9 women), while the second iteration contained 22 participants (10 men and 12 women)).

Both iterations contained the exact same 18 questions. The first 12 questions concerned 6 types of chocolates that each participant sampled. For each chocolate, participants were asked how much they enjoyed the chocolate, and also how likely they would be to buy the chocolate. The latter 6 questions asked:

  • How much do you generally enjoy eating chocolate?
  • How much does price affect your decision to buy a chocolate bar?
  • How much do the ethical practices of a chocolate maker affect your decision to buy a chocolate bar?
  • How much do you associate chocolate with sensuality/romance?
  • How much do you associate chocolate with loss of control?
  • What is your gender?

The first iteration of the survey was a traditional blind taste test; the second iteration, however, allowed participants to see and to inspect the chocolate wrappers. Participants were encouraged to read the wrappers in full. The final question asked for gender identity. This question allowed me to filter results to investigate gender differences in how participants answered questions (although ‘gender non-binary’ and ‘prefer not to disclose’ were options for this question, no participant identified with these answers, thus a pure female-male comparison could be conducted).

Image 4: Participants of Study 2 taste chocolate while inspecting wrappers and completing the survey on their mobile devices (source: David Pfeifer)

Gender-Based Results

Results will be broken down between the answers of men and the answers of women. Because Study 2 had a more balanced ratio of men and women, and because the quantity of participants was more robust (n=22), I used the data from study 2 more reliably. As mentioned before, participants were asked to rate 6 types of chocolate. While eating each one, they answered how willing they would be to buy and how much they enjoyed each chocolate. Specifically looking at those who responded that they are ‘likely’ or ‘extremely likely’ to buy the chocolates, I averaged the responses across each chocolate and between genders. Using the results of Study 2 (wrappers visible), women reported that they are 10% more ‘likely’ to buy chocolate and 10% more ‘extremely likely’ to buy chocolate than men.

Figure 1

While continuing to look within Study 2, women appear to generally enjoy eating chocolate more than men. According to figure 2, women are 27% more likely to ‘enjoy [chocolate] a great deal’ than men. Contrastingly, figure 3 shows that women are not only 7% more likely to ‘not at all’ be effected by price, but women are also 20% less likely to be effected ‘a great deal’ by price. In other words, women seem to care less about price when they are considering purchasing chocolates. Men, therefore, care more, even though they enjoy it less (see fig. 3). Although results regarding sensuality and romance are mixed when looking at men and women, it is clear that women have a 13% higher likelihood of ‘moderately’ associating chocolate with romance, and a 5% higher likelihood of associating chocolate with romance ‘a great deal’ (see fig. 4).

figure 2

Figure 3

figure 4

Control versus Subject-Based Results

Results will be detailed beginning with broad Study 1 versus Study 2 insights  – those independent of gender and purely based on whether participants had access to the wrappers or not. Participants from Study 1 (pure blind taste test) will be referred to as ‘Controls’; Participants in Study 2 (inspected wrappers) will be referred to as ‘Subjects’.

As figure 5 signifies, subjects reported that they ‘enjoy [chocolate] a great deal’ 13% more than controls. Additionally, Subjects reported that they ‘dislike’ chocolate 12% less than Controls. In other words, exposure to the wrappers – complete with Fair Trade insignias, personal stories about ethics, etc. – caused Subjects to enjoy chocolate more and dislike it less than Controls. Figure 6 details how price affects the decision to buy a chocolate bar. As the graphic indicates, 67% of Controls answered that price affects their decision ‘a lot’, whereas 18% of Subjects indicated the same. Additionally, 0% of Controls reported that they are ‘not at all’ affected by price, but 14% of Subjects said they were ‘not at all’ affected. Effectively, those exposed to wrappers were less likely to care about price regarding their decision to buy chocolate. The awareness of the ethics of chocolate manufacturers appear to have marginal impact, if any, on whether participants are more willing to buy a chocolate bar. Figure 7 shows that, although Subjects are slightly more likely to buy a chocolate bar with the knowledge of fair trade, ethical sourcing, etc., Subjects are also slightly more likely to report that they are ‘not at all’ impacted by the ethics of chocolate companies. Results regarding associations between chocolate and romance (see fig. 8) appear to be insignificant. It is worthwhile to point out, however, that 23% of Subjects reported associating chocolate with romance ‘a lot’, while 0% of Controls reported so. Question 15 (“how much do you associate chocolate with loss of control”) on the survey was vague and uninformative. “Loss of control” may mean a host of different things to participants, and the results in figure 9 show that the question was not clear. There are few differences in the answers from either group, which indicates that the question missed the mark on clarity and salience.

figure 5figure 6figure 7figure 8figure 9

Discussion and Limitations

From a historical standpoint, women were the initial targets of chocolate advertising in the Wester World. Eventually, advertisers attempted to target men with the idea of tempting sexy women with irresistible chocolate. The study conducted above sought to investigate how useful these tactics were by attempting to quantify if women actually do enjoy chocolate more and if they are more likely to buy chocolate. Additionally, the study sought to shed some light on the effectiveness of branding chocolate to appear ethical or feminine.

Results show that women do enjoy chocolate more than men; a higher percentage of women ‘enjoy [chocolate] a great deal’. Results also show that price affects men’s decision to buy a chocolate bar more than it does for women. This could indicate that advertisers accurately predicted that men are the current purchasers of chocolate; because they are concerned with buying chocolate not to consume, but to court, they are more aware of the prices of chocolate. My results, when looking at opinions of romance between men and women, were mixed. When looking at results between women across studies, however, results are relatively robust (see fig. 10 below). That is to say that women in Study 1 (blind taste test) associate chocolate and romance markedly less than women in Study 2 (wrappers available). I suspect that, because some wrappers contained very romantic and feminine themes, women associated chocolate and romance more in Study 2, because they had access to such visuals. For example, one chocolate bar, the Chocolove XOXOX Strong, contains a Shakespeare Sonnet. The Divine Chocolate Bar has hearts on the logo and on the packaging in general. This finding demonstrates that marketing chocolate bars with romantic themes causes women to associate chocolate more with romance. The women did not, however, show any more enjoyment for these particularly romantic chocolate bars than any other chocolate.

figure 10


This survey was extremely fun to conduct, and I enjoyed hosting 34 people to eat chocolate, drink rosé (21+ of course!), and help me to find some answers about wrapper advertising and gender differences in chocolate consumption. That being said, this study has some serious setbacks that prevent it from yielding truly objective, statistically significant results. For one, the participants were not random. The very vast majority of participants enjoy chocolate, and chances are there was some selection bias, because only those who enjoyed chocolate offered to do my study. Additionally, the beforementioned balance issues with men and women in Studies 1 and 2 caused study 1 to be extremely unreliable. Only 12 people showed up, and 9 of them were women, so the results were too small to do a proper comparison.

Additionally, I think I could have done more than simply have the wrappers out and encourage participants to read them. Having personalized documents that detail the company’s message and ethics could have yielded more salient results. Explaining ‘loss of control’ more thoroughly would have cleared up confusion regarding question 15. It also could have been useful to ask a question regarding whom the participants buy chocolate for: themselves or for others. Having 5 responses (e.g. hate it; dislike; indifferent; enjoy; love it) made data analysis difficult. I would decrease it to 3 to be able to supply more relevant data analysis.

Chocolate advertisers target certain consumers, because they believe tactics of sexuality and femininity will increase their bottom lines. It appears that targeting women is advantageous, because they do in fact enjoy chocolate better. Whether they buy more chocolate is unknown (according to this study), because they appear to be less likely to buy due to price. Chocolate advertising has changed over the centuries, but women – whether in wholesome housewife stereotypes, or sexualized stereotypes – have remained a focal point throughout.



Sources Cited

Grivetti, Louis E.; Shapiro, Howard-Yana. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (Kindle Location 5939). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 9: Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in Chocolate Advertisements.” Aframer 119x. CGIS, Cambridge. 28 March 2018. Lecture.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. 2010.   1-131. Print.

Wadsworth, J. A curious history of the nature and quality of chocolate. Quoted in: Fuller, L. K. Chocolate Fads, Folklore, and Fantasies. New York: Haworth Press, 1994

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