Cacao as a consumable entity has an undeniably rich and complicated history. Initially, cacao beans were systematically dried, ground, and mixed with cold water. They were typically consumed in a bitter liquid form by Aztec warriors and elite men. Then, beginning at the end of the fifteenth century CE, cacao was transported from MesoAmerica to the European continent. Within Europe, the use of cacao expanded and diversified. Notably, the first chocolate bar was invented by Joseph Fry in 1847 in England (Martin 5). Following this invention, solid chocolate underwent large scale democratization and commercialization (Coe 234-252 ).
Today it is nearly impossible to find a grocery store that does not stock a wide variety of chocolate. The success of chocolate as a commodity is further reflected in the enormous respective net worths of the major chocolate production companies. The Mars Company for instance has an estimated value of sixty billion U.S. dollars (Clabaugh 1). It is thus clear that chocolate occupies a permanent place in the global food market. Additionally, it is obvious that the growth of the chocolate industry has been made possible by a strong and consistent demand for chocolate products. This demand for chocolate raises two important questions; first why do people buy chocolate and second how do people choose which chocolate to buy?
At a first glance the answers to these questions may seem unimportant and irrelevant. It is tempting to assume that modern day consumers buy chocolate simply because they are biologically programmed to enjoy its taste. In fact, several scientists have argued that an affinity for sweet goods is innately human (Small 1). If this theory is in fact true, then most customers should make chocolate purchases based solely on their personal, subjective taste preferences. However, this is not the case. The relatively minor role that taste plays in influencing chocolate selection becomes apparent when analyzing the responses of two Harvard students who were interviewed about their relationship with chocolate. Their insight showed that the people’s buying patterns regarding chocolate are not influenced solely by human biological preference. Rather these trends are the consequence of targeting marketing and advertising on the part of chocolate producers. Typically, chocolate has been specifically marketed to function in ways that are particularly appealing to customers. Consequently, people make decisions about which chocolate to buy based on utility, emotion, personal ethics, and perceived status.
When Do People Buy Chocolate?
Question One: Who do you by chocolate for?
Participant A: “Sometimes I buy chocolate for my little cousins if they are doing a performance. Sometimes I buy it for my mom on Mother’s day. One time, a close friend of mine’s dad passed away so I bought his mom some chocolate.”
Participant B: “My parents sometimes. Mostly my mom.”
Question Two: Do you associate chocolate with a particular holiday?
Participant A: “I used to associate chocolate with Valentine’s Day. It sounds cliche but it’s hard not to associate chocolate with Valentine’s Day because that is usually the day that I get the most chocolate.”
Participant B: “I typically associate chocolate with Easter.”
The answers to these questions are very revealing. Significantly, none of the interviewees mentioned buying chocolate for themselves just because they liked the taste. Both students recalled buying chocolate for their immediate family members. More specifically, they bought chocolate in order to express particular emotions to their loved ones. These emotions include pride, celebratory support, love, and sympathy.
The interviewees also reported their associations between chocolate and special occasions. In fact, the link between chocolate and both Easter and Valentine’s Day is widespread across the globe. This is because modern marketing has formed seemingly unbreakable links between chocolate and fun, and chocolate and love. For children at Easter, chocolate is equivalent to fun. They get to eat carefully designed chocolate bunnies and hunt for colorful chocolate eggs. On Valentine’s Day, chocolate has come to symbolize love. Men are encouraged to buy women chocolate in hopes of winning their hearts or at the very least their affection. Notably, the equation of chocolate with love is not even unique to North America. The chocolate market in China for instance is very much dependent on principles of love and gift giving (Allen 25). The fact that chocolate is being bought either to bring joy or inspire to love further suggests that the pleasant taste of chocolate is not its main selling point.
A box of heart-shaped chocolates emphasizing a link between chocolate and love.
An bunny crafted out of chocolate for Easter.
The students’ answers also highlight the extremely gendered nature of the chocolate business. Mothers, wives, and girlfriends appear to be the most common recipients of chocolate. This is consistent with the belief that chocolate can function as an aphrodisiac, thereby making women more receptive to the romantic advances of men. This pattern is also unsurprising given the popular notion that chocolate can exert control over the moods of women who are often depicted as sad, anxious, or obsessive (Robertson 35). If chocolate consumption was driven purely by taste, then it is likely that both men and women would consume chocolate at equal rates. The fact that chocolate markets are more heavily geared towards women than men suggests that there are other factors besides taste at play.
When Class Motivates Chocolate Choice
Question Three: Do you prefer dark chocolate or milk chocolate?
Participant A: “I prefer dark chocolate because it tastes more chocolatey. I’ve preferred it since I was a kid because that’s what my parents gave to me. I think many people on Bainbridge Island (where I’m from) prefer dark chocolate. I’ve also got cousins that live in Cambridge that only eat fancy dark chocolate.”
Participant B: “I prefer dark chocolate. Milk chocolate is candy, and dark chocolate is much better quality.”
Question Four: Is the percent cacao important to you?
Participant One: “As long as it is above 70%. Sometimes I can tolerate 65% cacao.“It doesn’t bother me that dark chocolate may be more expensive. It is much better quality.”
Participant Two: “Yes. I like 85-90%. It keeps you young.”
From these responses is clear that instinctive taste preferences do not fully dictate chocolate partiality. Neither one of the students interviewed had an innate sweet tooth. Rather, they both expressed their appreciation for darker, less sweet chocolate. Although participant A praised the ‘chocolatey’ flavor of dark chocolate, they also acknowledged that they learned to like dark chocolate as part of a family tradition. Furthermore, the adjectives ‘fancy’ and ‘high quality’ were used by both participants to describe dark chocolate. This suggests that in modern times, the percent cacao of chocolate bars has come to be an indicator of the quality of the product. Eating dark chocolate could even be a sign of social status. Both students believe that more bitter chocolate is of a higher caliber than milk chocolate and so they gravitate towards it. There is clearly a large market for chocolate as a luxury product. Participant A even confesses that they would pay more money for higher cacao content. It is apparent that people are not only buying chocolate because they instinctively love its taste. Rather many consumers are selectively purchasing chocolate that they believe to be extravagant. On the flip side of this, there are likely many consumers who are motivated to buy chocolate not because of their personal tastes but because of low costs. There is certainly some economic benefit to selling cheap, mass- produced, sweetened chocolate.
Lindt's Dark Chocolate is called Supreme and Associated with Excellence
When Morals Motivate Chocolate Choice
Question Five: Describe the dynamic between cacao farmers and chocolate producers as you perceive it to be?
Participant A: “I think it is exploitative.”
Participant B: “I think that it is exploitative and often times involving children, as it would be when any first world nation utilizes the resources of a developing country.”
Question Six: Do you consciously buy products with fair trade certification?
Participant A: “I do. It is heavily advertised in Bainbridge Island. For example, in cafes the coffee that is fair trade will have huge labels highlighting its status.”
Participant B: “If it is there, I will buy it but I don’t go searching through the store for it.”
Question Seven: What do you think the impact of fair trade is/How do you feel when you buy Fair Trade Products?
Participant A: “I think that there are some good things with Fair Trade. There is a feeling of giving back in an obnoxious, liberal, informed, upper class consumer kind of way. But in talking to my uncle who recently got into the chocolate business I am now aware that it is often difficult for small farmers to acquire certification. It’s probably similar to free range chicken eggs.”
Participant B: “I think it is minimal and that it is a marketing ploy. I think it speaks to a larger way in which we want to combine philanthropy with consumerism in a way that never makes sense. That being said even the minimal impact does make me feel partially better. I know I’m supposed to feel good, like I’m being guilted into it.”
Question Eight: Is being organic important to you?
Participant A: “If I am shopping with my parents, I will buy organic but if I’m shopping by myself on a budget I might not. If I do I pat myself on the back because it is slightly better.”
Participant B: “Yeah I guess.”
The responses of the interviewees to these questions highlight the moral factors that often push people to buy some brands of chocolate rather than others. Both participants viewed Fair Trade certified chocolate and organic chocolate as more ideal than their non -certified counterparts. Additionally, they both described the process of chocolate production as exploitative. They viewed the relationship between cacao farmers and producers in a binary, divisive way (Martin 8) and expressed a degree of guilt regarding their role as chocolate consumers. Importantly, this guilt has significantly informed their past chocolate purchases. Admittedly, both students seemed somewhat aware of the limitations and downfalls of Fair -Trade and organic certification. However despite their status as informed, educated, socially aware people, both students could not deny that there was an ethical incentive to purchase certified chocolate products. After all Fair Trade might not solve everything but it is better than nothing.
Chocolate Bar with A Fair Trade Label
Chocolate Bars that are clearly labelled as Organic.
When two Harvard students were interviewed about their relationship with chocolate, their responses indicated that personal emotions, romantic intentions, desires for luxury, and ethical values were all stronger motivators for buying chocolate than simple taste. However, it is important to note that additional interviews with a larger, more diverse group of students would need to be carried out in order to legitimize the claims of this essay.
Allen, Lawrence L. Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers. New York: American Management Association, 2010. Print.
Clabaugh, Jeff. “Mars family is America’s third-richest dynasty.” Washington Business Journal. Web. Accessed April 30, 2016.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Martin, Carla “Lecture 5” Web. Accessed April 30, 2016.
Martin, Carla “Lecture 8” Web. Accessed April 30, 2016.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. 2010. 1-131. Print.
Small Meredith, F. “Why We Love the Sweet Life.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 07 Feb. 2008. Web. Accessed April 30, 2016.