Then and Now: Exploitation in Cacao Production and Chocolate Advertising

Brenden Rodriquez

The exploitation of people of color in the chocolate industry is almost as old as chocolate itself. Ever since Europeans utilized native peoples in Mesoamerica and later enslaved Africans to produce cacao, there has existed an inherent link between race and chocolate, a relationship not only seen in the production of chocolate but also in chocolate advertising. Just as Black individuals were and are utilized for their physical labor, they were and are being exploited for advertising.

The consumption of cacao dates back to the Mayan and Aztec societies of Mesoamerica. When settlers came to the Americas, exploitation and forced labor came with them. The Spanish introduced the encomienda system in which Spanish settlers were supposed to protect and care for native peoples in return for voluntary labor when in reality the settlers seized lands and forced natives into pseudo-slavery working long hours without pay resulting in the deaths of many. Though cacao had been introduced to and was being brought back to Europe, it was primarily used for medicinal purposes until sugar began being added to cacao which made it more palatable for Europeans. Emma Robertson, a professor and scholar at La Trobe University, states that “this was ‘thanks to the emergent slave-based sugar cane economy of the Americas’. The story of chocolate subsequently becomes increasingly intertwined with that of European imperial politics…Chocolate thus first gained meaning in England as a product of imperialism” (Robertson 67). As time went on—around 1900—some cacao production shifted from the West Indies to West Africa, particularly in São Tomé. The Cadbury company became a center of attention for its labor practices and accusations that it utilized slavery in São Tomé during this period. William Cadbury responded to these claims by stating, “I do feel that there is a vast difference between the cultivation of cocoa and cold or diamond mining, and I should be sorry needlessly to injure a cultivation that as far as I can judge provides labour of the very best kind to be found in the tropics: at the same time we should all like to clear our hands of any responsibility for slave traffic in any form” (Satre 19), though he refused to reveal a bill of sale for the plantation as it “specifically identified human beings as property” (Satre 19). This is an example of chocolate companies blatantly and knowingly minimizing the perceived severity of their production practices and exploitation.

The exploitation of Black individuals goes well beyond just labor practices. As Robertson explains, “The use of black people in advertising has a long history. As Jan Pieterse demonstrates, products made available through the use of slave labour, such as coffee and cocoa, often used, and many still use, images of black people to enhance their luxury status” (Robertson 36).

The exploitation of Black people did not stop with cacao production. The image above is an advertisement for Rowntree, an early 20th century power-house chocolate and sweets corporation that still exists today and has developed the Kit Kat among other recognizable treats. It depicts a young Black girl named Honeycomb using broken and stereotypically Black verbiage to convey the benefits of her Rowntree beverage. It is one of many chocolate advertisements to utilize a caricatured Black subject to sell a product. On using Honeycomb specifically for a powdered cacao beverage, Robertson states, “Though processed by western industry, cocoa powder is closest to the ‘raw’, colonial material. The two Rowntree characters only exist through their relation to the cocoa, effectively disempowering them. There is no recognition of the actual connections between the commodity and the labour of black people in the colonies” (Robertson 42). Thus, not only does the Rowntree company exploit and make a caricature of the idea of blackness, they either intentionally or unintentionally, directly linked their advertisements and the subject therein to slavery.

In a similar vein, above is the advertisement used for Banania, a French chocolate drink, from 1915. It depicts a Senegalese infantry soldier with a red fez, a uniform item worn by Senegalese soldiers. This advertisement presents a caricature of this man by depicting him with a stereotypically large smile as well as the slogan for the product “y’a bon” (translating to “it’s good”) which is derived from the pidgin French commonly spoken by these Senegalese solders. The popularity of the product cemented the character with the slogan, making the Black man portrayed on the ad and packaging and this lower form of language inseparable.

Finally, the above video is an advertisement for the Spanish chocolate, Conguitos. This commercial goes even farther to portray Black individuals as “the other.” Whereas the Rowntree and Banania advertisements both push racial and colonial traits and themes on the subjects of their ads, this commercial depicts the subjects as extremely stereotyped natives, completely naked, living in small straw huts, and carrying spears. The music in the background aids in this stereotyping, a light flute and tribal-sounding drum. In the final scene of the commercial, the animated character rolls uncontrollably and the video fades into the character essentially being turned into a ball of chocolate which is then consumed by a white actress. This is concerning on a number of levels. This aspect of the advertisement effectively conveys that the people of color in their eyes are consumable and expendable at the hands of a white individual, a clear similarity to the treatment of Black slaves and laborers in cacao producing regions. Overall, these advertisements speak volumes for the influence that the chocolate labor practices and production had on advertising and how much the colonial mindset permeated every level of the chocolate industry.

Looking toward the modern-day chocolate industry, in terms of production and cultivation, much has changed and yet much has stayed the same. Today, a majority of the world’s cacao comes from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. Though the methods and aspects of production may have changed—for instance, instead of massive plantations owned by large corporations and companies, today a vast majority of cacao is produced by smallholder farmers on relatively small plantations—the exploitation of African peoples for labor and production of cacao seems to be a constant in the chocolate industry. The same way companies utilized slavery and pseudo-slavery in centuries past, even in the cacao industry of today’s day and age, companies have established a form of pseudo-slavery by offering the lowest prices possible for beans and creating a cycle of debt or living for growers.

After a series of small wars and conflicts around the turn of the century, some of which had to do with conflict over coveted cocoa groves, Côte d’Ivoire was in shambles. Carol Off, a Canadian journalist and author, states, “By the end of the millennium, Côte d’Ivoire was one of the most indebted nations on earth, even as it supplied almost half of the world’s cocoa to the multi-billion-dollar industry and helped to satisfy the world’s addiction to chocolate” (Off 118). This situation of debt and vulnerability resulted in mass corruption and exploitation of labor, essentially slavery. Cacao growers had no other choice. Due to the fact that cacao is a tricky crop to grow and harvest, only being able to do so by hand for the most part, the amount able to be produced per unit area tends to be very low. This dilemma is exacerbated due to the smaller cacao farms of today. Órla Ryan, an author for the Financial Times, a publication in London, explains, “On most the production per hectare is either low or very low. In many cases, yields have been stagnant for some time. Roughly one-third of farms yield as little as 137.5 kg per hectare. What this means is that the poorest farmers can make just $500 a year, an income which makes it impossible to do little more than survive” (Ryan 59-60). When looking at the differences between slavery and this modern system of cacao production, there is an obvious difference in that today the growers are getting paid an actual wage, but looking realistically, $500 is not an income that can sustain a healthy life for one person let alone families in which the farmer making the $500 is the primary income source. Thus, farmers must look for options to solve their situations since most cannot afford to hire laborers which usually comes in the form of using their own families to work on the farm, which includes their children.

Having children work is a slippery slope as there are many instances in which it is completely fine and others where it is not. Ryan describes how the International Labor Organization’s (ILO’s) standards for what constitutes the worst forms of child labor is contextualized in the chocolate industry: “‘work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carrier out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.’ On the cocoa plantation; this is generally defined to include work which involves dangerous machinery, equipment or tools, the handling of heavy loads and exposure to pesticides or chemicals” (Ryan 47-48). Child labor offers just another area of exploitation in the cacao production process. In many cases, child trafficking also plays a role as children are brought to plantations and intimidated out of reaching out to authorities (Ryan). Off describes the story and mission of Abdoulaye Macko, a man who took it upon himself to liberate conscripted child workers from the cacao farms in Côte d’Ivoire. “The farmers, or their supervisors, were working the young people almost to death. The boys had little to eat, slept in bunkhouses that were locked during the night, and were frequently beaten They had horrible sores on their backs and shoulders, some as a result of carrying the heavy bags of cocoa, but some likely the effects of physical abuse” (Ryan 121). This goes beyond helping parents, cousins, or other family with light work around the farm. This is systematic and calculated abuse and exploitation of a vulnerable population for the purpose (knowingly or unknowingly) of improving the profit margins of the large chocolate corporations.

We have now looked at how labor practices have changed (or refused to change) but how have chocolate advertisements changed to adjust to the modern market? First, let us take a look at Banania, the company with the stereotyped Senegalese soldier, above. The lifelike depiction of the character has been traded out for the head and hand of an animated version of the same character. The identifiable red fez remains a constant. One major change is the smile which is still distractingly large but now the lips are thick and bright red. This aspect simply adds to the stereotyping involved in this character. In an attempt to solve an outdated and stereotyped subject, Banania did away with most of the harmless aspects of the character and kept or amplified the caricature aspects, though the French pidgin slogan is gone which is for the best.

The next advertisement, shown above, is for Magnum ice cream. It depicts a Black woman whose shoulder is cracked resembling the cracking of the chocolate shell of a Magnum ice cream bar. Overlooking the issue of the sexualization and fetishism of the ad (which is common in chocolate advertising and too extensive of a topic to cover here), Magnum uses the woman’s race in a botched attempt at visual wit, thus adding to the extensive history of utilization and exploitation of Black people. In addition, the fact that the inside ice cream is vanilla further degrades the woman shown as, in an ice cream bar, the ice cream is the thing that matters, thus the chocolate shell and therefore this woman’s race are simply things one must get through into order to reach the vanilla (read: white) center. Finally, this ad for Dove chocolate below further demonstrates the blatant utilization of race and the exploitation of Black individuals for the benefit of the chocolate company. In this case, the man’s face is not even shown, hammering home the idea that this does not need to be anyone in particular, just a Black man. The Magnum and Dove advertisements are not intentionally reminiscent of the racially charged ads of the prior century, but advertising companies and departments need to both understand the society we live in today in which no one’s race should be utilized for commercial gain as well as a basic background of the history chocolate as to not make these kinds of mistakes.

Just as labor and cacao production has evolved and yet also held onto key defining elements up through the modern era, so has chocolate advertising. In both cases, basic improvements were made, such as there no longer being colonialism or slavery in their truest forms or no longer having racially charge language and stereotyping in advertisements. Yet, both also held onto elements of their past. The economic and commercial model that chocolate producers work within keep them in a state of pseudo-slavery and advertisements still use race to sell products and link chocolate to the race of people that cultivate cacao in its rawest form.

Works Cited


Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. The New Press, 2008.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: a Social and Cultural History. Manchester University Press, 2013.

Ryan, Órla. Chocolate Nations Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. Zed Books, 2012.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.


“Banania Breakfast Mix.” Simply Gourmand,

conguitosTV. “Anuncio Conguitos: Tribu Color.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Sept. 2010,

“Tin Signs Banania Tirailleur.” Camille Vintage,

Dove and Magnum Ads: Google Images

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s