AFRAMER 119X: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food
May 3, 2019
Since the colonizers of the new world heard of the cacao plant, they have sold myths of not only its tastes and pleasures, but also of its healing powers, religious importance, and cultural ties. And while advertisements today do not preach the same stories as our old world ancestors, they still perpetuate false promises to consumers. Concepts such as health, gender, and race have been and are still manipulated by the chocolate industry to entice consumers to buy their brand. This paper will discuss the wrongdoings of chocolate advertisements over the years as it pertains to race, health, and gender. Similarly, the paper will look into solutions to create more integrity and honesty in today’s chocolate industry.
To fully understand the scope of chocolate advertisements and how they mislead consumers, it’s important to start when the product first hit the mainstream media. A major issue at the start of the chocolate industry, and particularly in advertising, was race.
Rowntree’s Cocoa created an African American girl (seen above) in 1947 as part of a new advertising campaign to display their chocolate. And as was common with other advertisements at the time, the Rowntree Chocolate portrayal of this African American girl was as not well spoken, poor, and simply dressed. Emma Robertson, in “Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History,” discusses the negative race relations that Rowntree had in its production as well as in its advertisements of chocolate. Furthermore, she discussed how Rowntree was just a microcosm of the greater problems at stake regarding race in the chocolate industry (Robertson 86). Specifically, common portrayals of African American people as poorly dressed and with simple language created a negative and offensive perception of the black community during that time.
But what about today? Does the chocolate industry still implement race in their advertisements?
The answer is yes. Above is a current Spanish chocolate brand known as Conguitos. The Atlanta Black Star’s article, 12 Racist Logos You Didn’t Know Were Used by Popular Brands, points out the racist overtones the brand’s character still holds. But while the company altered the image to have the character’s spear removed after receiving extensive criticism, the character still retains its main characteristics (Moore).
Diana Palardy, in “The Evolution of Conguitos: Changing the Face of Race in Spanish Advertising,” discusses the offensiveness of these characteristics. A bald head, red lips, as well as the name Conguitos, which derives from the word Congo, all perpetuate the same offensive stereotypes we saw in the 1940s with Rowntree Cocoa’s ad with the young African American girl (Palardy 48). The character stays because it is a Spanish household name and its removal would risk Conguitos losing sales of their chocolate. The very idea that Conguitos survives and won’t remove a racially controversial figure from its advertisements because it’s profitable demonstrates that racism is still very much alive in the chocolate industry.
Although problems still exist, there has been extensive work to eradicate racism from the chocolate industry. But while Racism is fading out or trying to fade out of chocolate advertising, false claims of chocolate’s health benefits are steadily rising.
Healthline released a news article recently outlining the various health benefits of dark chocolate. The article claims promises of chocolate lowering blood pressure and reducing heart disease all under the pretext that it is evidence-based and scientifically backed (“7 Proven Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate”). To Healthline’s credit, they are not the first nor last media source to proclaim chocolate as the next big breakthrough in health science. Under unclear evidence, various research done on the backs of the chocolate industry has found cacao to have numerous health benefits.
In fact, the Guardian released a news article releasing findings of some of these scientific studies. They claim health benefits such as chocolate reducing heart flutters, strokes, and cognitive decline (Fleming). And while some of these reports and news articles aren’t trying to mislead consumers, there still are not factual. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, explains why we have seen the myth of chocolate’s health arise in the media as of late.
In her book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew The Science of What We Eat, Nestle demonstrates how the research performed on foods like chocolate are financially backed by the food industry itself, so the results usually come out in favor of the producer (Nestle). She writes, ‘“Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results”’ (Fleming). The chocolate health myth, therefore, is continuing in the world today because the companies that benefit most from chocolate being a health food are backing the research that says it is healthy.
Moreover, even researchers not backed by the chocolate industry can make mistakes and perpetuate the current chocolate-health hoax. James Howe in “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered” looks at a popular study, the Kuna Case, that claimed chocolate led to numerous health benefits. Dr. Norman Hollenberg of the Harvard Medical School did research on the Kuna people, finding those still living in the indigenous areas along the northeast coast of Panama experienced much lower blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease than their migrant cousins in Panama City. Hollenberg’s study found that the Kuna people had significantly low blood pressure and healthy hearts because they consumed a lot of chocolate (Howe 45).
James Howe, however, debunked Hollenberg’s claims in 2013. The researcher pointed to numerous other environmental factors besides the drinking of cacao that led to healthier hearts in the indigenous Kuna people. Howe exclaims, “Among the friends and colleagues I consulted, some of them Kuna themselves and the others anthropologists, not one found the key claims of the chocolate researchers plausible” (Howe 45).
The Kuna Case anecdote is a perfect representation of the current state of chocolate advertising as it pertains to health. Findings that are favorable to the chocolate industry itself, whether initially performed with a bias or not, are taken as true because that is what people want to hear. Consumers would love to think that one of their favorite snacks, chocolate, is healthy for them. The problem is that it’s not. The myth will keep spreading, however, because the chocolate industry has and will keep trying to perpetuate this lie and the public will likely not refute it because they want the lie to be true (Nestle).
The last malpractice chocolate advertising uses is its mistreatment of gender. And like with race, it is important to look at the history of gender in chocolate advertising before diving into the contemporary problems the industry still faces.
Chocolate has always been geared toward women. Whether advertised toward romance or housewife ideals, chocolate targeted and still targets the female gender. In her book, “Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History,” Emma Robertson discusses how early on the housewife ideal was fetishized by chocolate advertising. Starting during the war and into the 1950s and beyond, chocolate geared its ads towards woman buying chocolate to make their husbands, children, and themselves happy. In other words, chocolate companies advertised that by buying chocolate a woman would be a good mother and wife. The companies rationalized the ad campaigns as saying their main consumers were families so it only made sense to advertise toward the main shopper in the house: the mother (Robertson 20).
Chocolate advertising, therefore, changed when women began to digress from the typical American household. As women entered the workplace, chocolate advertisements changed to target the sexuality of women rather than the housewife ideals. Rowntree’s ‘“My Wife’s a Witch”’ Campaign demonstrates this switch in chocolate advertising. The campaign, while still focussing the positives of a woman based on her ability to be a housewife, also centered her beauty as a main part of the ad. The pitch of the advertisement was to make it seem as though men fall in love with a woman’s looks, cleaning and cooking abilities, and the chocolate she buys. So, according to the ad, if a woman bought this chocolate, her husband or boyfriend would love her more (Robertson 22).
The sexualizing of women, which started as soon at this Rowntree’s ad in the 1950s, is still present today. Whether it be for valentines day, a romantic occasion, or a simple indulgence, contemporary advertisements make out chocolate to be a highly sexualized product skewed towards women.
As the above advertisement represents, women, sex, indulgence, and love are associated with chocolate. It not only satisfies their hunger for food but hunger for something else more taboo. It’s a representation that does not extend to men in the advertising world and creates a stereotype based on gender.
But is it true? Do women love chocolate more than men? The National Institute of Health did a survey on the cravings of men and women in a college population and found no difference between indulgences of chocolate based on gender (Weingarten & Elston). According to Katherine Parkin, an associate professor of history at Monmouth University and the author of Food is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, the stereotype that women love chocolate more than men is due to marketing and a societal flaw. “Men have more freedom to indulge in all kinds of pleasures,” she writes. Therefore, women are less likely to buy chocolate without hard advertising geared toward them (Parkin).
As Parkin articulates, the problem with chocolate, sex, and women is both in part a fault of the industry and of society itself. Women are less free to indulge, so chocolate advertisements try to convince women indulgence is okay when they are consuming their chocolate brand (Parkin). As a result, there is a back and forth between society and industry that creates a culture that lies about the fact that women are obsessed or infatuated with chocolate. Why? Because it sells.
Overview and Solution
Overall, the chocolate industry has perpetuated three myths to help their sales. First, some companies still portray race in demeaning and offensive ways because some of the brands have become household names and to change them and their characters would risk losing profits (Palardy). Second, the chocolate industry has backed false research to prove chocolate is a health food with numerous benefits such as heart health, low blood pressure, and better cognitive function (Nestle). Lastly, the industry had portrayed women as infatuated with chocolate even though research has shown no difference between chocolate cravings in men and women (Parkin) (Weingarten & Elston). So what do we do to create more integrity and honesty in the chocolate industry?
The first and possibly most important step is demanding more from consumers. Catherine Higgs in “Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, And Colonial Africa” discusses the problems that Portugal had with cocoa production using slave labor in places such as São Tomé and Príncipe. One of the main solutions she and others at the time had was to have consumers boycott and demand only chocolate that was not produced from slave labor (Higgs 148). We can do the same with chocolate today. We can boycott those products that use racially offensive advertisements, lie about health benefits, and use false gender stereotypes.
Another solution used in Catherine Higgs book to solve the issue of slave labor in the chocolate industry was for government intervention (Higgs 147). Government regulation of offensive material for both gender biased and racist adds can reduce the negative advertisements we see in the media today. Furthermore, demanding reviewed and verified studies on the health benefits of chocolate can help inform consumers on whether chocolate is truly healthy for them.
Overall, government regulation and consumer boycotts, which we have seen work in the past as in the case with reducing Portuguese slave-produced chocolate, can help solve the contemporary advertising issues we see with race, gender, and health today. It may take effort, as many attempts to make changes in society do, but it will lead to a stronger and more integrity driven chocolate industry.
At the end of the day, there are problems present in the chocolate industry that many would expect to have been eradicated a long time ago. Race, gender, and health all are misused and taken advantage of by the chocolate industry in their advertising campaigns. But with consumer and government support these problems can be reduced and eventually stopped. All it takes is a concentrated effort from a grassroots and consumer level as well as support from increased government regulation in the industry. If these are done, long-standing problems can be either fixed or eliminated from the chocolate industry’s advertising campaigns.
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“CHOCOLATE BALLS CONGUITOS ‘LACASA’ (90 G).” Your Spanish Corner, yourspanishcorner.com/en/sweets-and-candies-for-parties/2655-chocolate-conguitos- lacasa-90-g.html.
Fleming, Nic. “The Dark Truth about Chocolate.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Mar. 2018, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/mar/25/chocolate-the-dark-truth-is- it-good-for-you-health-wellbeing-blood-pressure-flavanols.
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Moore. “12 Racist Logos You Didn’t Know Were Used by Popular Brands.” Atlanta Black Star, 8 May 2014, atlantablackstar.com/2014/05/07/12-racists-logos-you-didnt-know-were-used- by-popular-brands/4/.
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Parkin, Katherine J. Food Is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: a Social and Cultural History. Manchester University Press, 2013.
Weingarten, H D, and D Elston. “Food Cravings in a College Population.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, 1991.
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