Chocolate is one of the most gendered and sexualized products being sold today. Its many forms serve many purposes and there are marketing techniques to sell every single one of them. But in nearly all cases, in each ad there is some reference to a woman in a hetero-normative manner. All the depictions of women in these commercials imply that the featured woman is in some kind of relationship, usually one with a man. In order to explore chocolate’s role in relationships, I first examine the overabundance of ads targeted towards heterosexual couples and the idea that men give chocolate to women. Second, I detail the lack of non-heterosexual ads and show how some ads could be converted in order to begin to break the gendered stereotype. Third, the relationship specifically between a woman and her chocolate is described and dissected. Overall, in conducting interviews with couples and delving deeply into advertisements I learned that chocolate is intrinsically linked both to femininity and to relationships, though chocolate’s exact place in a relationship is variable.
Chocolate and the Heterosexual Relationship
The traditional heterosexual relationship is defined as a female engaging romantically with a male. Romantic interactions may include, but are not limited to, spending time together, exchanging gifts, and engaging in sexual intercourse or other more PG-13 physical encounters, like kissing. Those three components of relationships feature heavily in the majority of chocolate ads, though often they are not all present in the same ad as that overcomplicates the ad. Romantic interactions can be generalized to any type of relationship (heterosexual or other), but in chocolate ads we only see them in the heterosexual context. There is no database of chocolate ads that confirms this. I make this claim using my own knowledge, gathered from years viewing chocolate ads in the media and more significantly, from four months intensely studying chocolate advertising in Dr. Martin’s course.
Let’s begin by examining a 1967 Brach’s ad for Valentine’s Day chocolate (Figure 1 below). I first saw in a Slate Magazine article titled “Cuckoo for Cocoa”. The article expounds upon women’s supposed craving of chocolate and how the media portrays and takes advantage of it (Anderson). In this ad, Brach’s claims that the giver of the chocolate will receive “free kisses with every box of Brach’s Valentine Chocolates you give to her”. Note the use of the word “her” in this advertisement. Brach’s is specifically marketing this box of chocolates as a gift for a woman. The gender of the giver is not specified in the ad, but using a number of context clues, we can determine that the giver is almost certainly male. First, the ad is for Valentine’s Day, a conventionally romantic holiday. The box of chocolate is given in the attempt to get “free kisses”, which again falls under the umbrella of traditional romantic relationship activities. Together, these two facts lead us to believe that the chocolates are given from one partner in the relationship to another. The third context clue is that defines this as a heterosexual relationship is the knowledge that this ad was created and distributed in 1967, a time where non-heterosexual relationships were still very much hidden, or at least not publicly marketed towards. We’ve determined that this Brach’s ad targets males, inciting them to give chocolate to their girlfriend/wife in order to get “free kisses”. Of course, the kisses aren’t actually free. They cost either $2.95 or $5.50, depending on which box of chocolates is purchased. The ad is overly feminized, featuring a lacy chocolate box covered in ribbons, many heart shapes, and the imprint of very female lips. This ad not only reinforces the heterosexual relationship, it furthers chocolate’s classification as “feminine”.
The gendered nature of chocolate probably began when chocolate was carried to Europe. Robertson argues that the “consumption of chocolate in the west became feminized early in history” and that “chocolate became associated with luxury and leisure in the domestic sphere from the eighteenth century” (Robertson 20). From Robertson, we know two things: that chocolate became associated with luxury and also became feminized. Because of the strict gender roles of the era and the difficulty of transportation, both associations make a great deal of sense. Cacao was only grown in the New World, so getting it to Europe was an expensive and lengthy process. Thus it could only be purchased by those with enough coin and so it became associated with luxury. In the 1700s, women did not have the power to make all their own purchases. While they did have some autonomy, European women were largely reliant on men for their clothing, shelter, and spending money. Only in rare cases would women have enough money to purchase their own chocolate. Instead, men could present their female sweethearts with gifts of chocolate, thereby feminizing chocolate. For example, in the 19th century, it became popular for men to give their partners “an elegant box of imported bon-bons” (Kawash 1).
The idea that men give chocolate to women has been perpetuated in the modern era. Advertisements specifically targeted towards men as chocolate-givers continue to reinforce the idea that the gifts are unidirectional and appropriate to give in a romantic context. A recent New York Times article titled “Sex and Candy” and published right before Valentine’s Day said that “nothing is more symbolic of the romance of Valentine’s Day than a box of chocolates, traditionally a gift from Him to Her” (Kawash 1). The article goes on to pick apart the reasons why chocolate marketing is aimed at women and why the gift from “Him to Her” is no longer accurate or even appropriate in today’s much broader relationship spectrum. But despite forward-thinking articles like Kawash’s, the “conventional wisdom is that women naturally crave the stuff [chocolate]” (Kawash 1). To determine whether this was true or whether people believed it was true, I interviewed a number of couples –same sex and opposite sex.
Diana and Felipe, 22 and 23 respectively, have been dating for five years. Three of those years have been long-distance and have involved quite a large number of in-the-mail presents. Interestingly, most of those presents are sent by Felipe to Diana and many of them feature chocolate or flowers, two stand-by romantic gifts. When asked why he sent chocolate to Diana, Felipe replied that he believes people, women in particular, feel happy when they receive and consume chocolate. He wants Diana to associate that feeling of happiness with him, so he sends her chocolate in the hope that, by the transitive property, she will feel happy when she thinks of him. Where did Felipe get this idea that chocolate makes women happy? “First-hand experience”, he stated, “along with media, family, and friends telling me so”. Diana and Felipe fall firmly in the heterosexual relationship standard shown by the media, but that does not mean all heterosexual couples do.
The Lack of Non-Heterosexual Chocolate Advertising
After scouring the internet, I was unable to find an overtly homosexual advertisement for chocolate. There are ambiguous ads that market chocolate to women without directly saying that the chocolate will be given to them by men, but they are much fewer in number than those that firmly depict men giving chocolate to women, or at least feature men and women in some kind of relationship exchanging chocolate.
Follow this link to see an ad by Bonjour Chocolate. It features very attractive, shirtless men preparing a chocolate creation sensuously. In this video, there is no implicit male-female relationship. In fact, it could even be argued that there is some kind of male-male relationship going on. A group of attractive, naked men making chocolate together? For each other? The sexual tension in the ad is palpable and if this were the entire ad, one could make a very convincing case that it breaks the heterosexual norm.
Unfortunately, the ad viewed isn’t the entire ad. In this depiction, I omitted the first twenty seconds. The full ad can be seen below.
With the additional twenty seconds, the entire gender status of the ad changes. Women are seen coyly flirting with men and almost throwing themselves at the men. Because they are attractive? Certainly. Or at least, before we see the chocolate, that is the primary reason. After the conclusion of the ad, we might guess that the women are throwing themselves at the men because they know that they make these delectable chocolate creations. And really, according to today’s society, women are after the chocolate, not the men. Though if men have chocolate, that certainly increases their chances. This ad, which is effective even without the first twenty seconds, places itself firmly in the hetero-normative category, when it could just as easily be gender-neutral.
But even in the last forty second of the ad, the men and chocolate are portrayed as feminine. Note, they are not portrayed as being for women, more that they themselves are feminine. The portrayal of femininity comes across because the men are being viewed by an outside party and being objectified. They are being sexualized in a way that usually only women are. The ad focuses on the lines of their bodies, the play of shadows on muscle and the silkiness of their smooth, hairless skin (almost like that of a woman’s). The men in the ad are objects to be admired because of their physical beauty and their sensuality, not at all because of their personality or skills. They are preparing food, a traditionally feminine task, and the food they are preparing is delicate and sweet, again expressly feminine. This ad, while it could break the heterosexual trend in traditional chocolate ads, nevertheless reinforces chocolate’s femininity.
We’ve seen that there are virtually no advertisements targeted specifically towards homosexual couples, so the question becomes, do these couples still exchange chocolate? The answer is clearly yes. Just because there ads are not specifically targeted at a given group of people does not mean that they are not affected by the ads. In fact, because women are so “chocolate-crazy”, wouldn’t it be a logical conclusion that women in same-sex relationships purchase and enjoy chocolate more than their heterosexual counterparts?
This assumption breaks down for a number of reasons. First, studies have shown that women do not actually desire chocolate significantly more than men do. A UK study by the Mintel research group showed that 91% of women admit to eating chocolate while 87% of men admit to consuming it – a mere 4% difference (CNN). Second, unlike the common assumption, PMS has nothing biological to do with the desire for chocolate (Nutter). The association of chocolate with PMS is largely a social construct and continues to exist simply because it is well established. Third and most importantly, women have more wants and needs than chocolate. In fact, chocolate ranks pretty low on the list for many women, such as for Ana and Wynn, one of the couples I interviewed. They prefer to give and receive meaningful gifts as opposed to chocolate, which another interviewee, Charlotte, calls chocolate “the gift you get when you don’t know what to get”. So chocolate isn’t destined to be the ultimate gift for same-sex female couples, but many still appreciate and enjoy it.
I Take Thee, Chocolate
We’ve talked about male-female relationships and female-female relationships, but we haven’t yet talked about the female-chocolate relationship, which is probably the most interesting and newest to advertising of the three. In this relationship, chocolate becomes the female’s partner. Take the ad below (Figure 2) for example. Though it appears to be an older ad, it is a modern take on a 1950’s era chocolate cake ad. The tagline, “because chocolate can’t get you pregnant,” directly urges the viewer to buy chocolate because it does not have the sex’s potential side-effect of pregnancy. As only men can cause women to become pregnant (assuming standard biological procedures) it is clear that chocolate here is a substitute for sex, for men.
But why is chocolate an acceptable substitute in the present day? What about contemporary chocolate makes it so similar to men/sex that it is commonly thought to be an appropriate replacement for either? There are certainly numerous parallels. First, for “chaste” women, and women are still supposed to be chaste in today’s world though there is much more sexual freedom, both sex and chocolate are forbidden fruits (Parkin). Sex is forbidden because engaging in it reduces a woman’s virtue and chocolate is forbidden because its consumption will eventually lead to weight gain, which is perceived as a negative consequence by much of society. Second, both chocolate and sex are luxuries, chocolate because it can be expensive, sex because finding a good partner can be quite difficult. Third, both chocolate and sex can only be had in limited quantities because a healthy body can only handle so much of either. Basically, chocolate, like sex, is an indulgence, a temptation. Women want it because they know they shouldn’t have it, and that only makes them want it more.
Chocolate is much more manageable than a man, than sex. It doesn’t argue, it can’t cause pregnancy, and it is always, always there when a woman wants it. She can pick the brand, the cacao content, even the packaging, to suit her mood, whereas a man cannot be similarly engineered. True, chocolate cannot give a physical hug in times of trouble, but the media’s portrayal of chocolate as a comfort food means that many people convince themselves that they are comforted simply by the act of eating chocolate. The media, by continually advertising chocolate as a carnal pleasure (and therefore similar to sex) and by portraying it is as a comfort food (replacing a man’s emotional value), has effectively made chocolate a substitute for men. But it is even better than men because it is always available and requires much less effort to keep around. The Axe commercial below shows how crazy women become over the “chocolate man”. In this ad, chocolate literally takes the place of a man (and by implication, sex). Women want the chocolate more than they do the man.
Modern women can purchase chocolate by themselves, thereby asserting their independence and placing them in somewhat of a masculine role. However, the femininity of chocolate reduces the effect of that masculinity. In fact, consuming chocolate, especially luxury chocolate, which is a firmly feminine food, enhances a woman’s femininity every time she eats it simply because chocolate is so essentially female. Combined, chocolate’s femininity, the ease with which it can be acquired, its numerous parallels to men, and the media’s continual, in-your-face depiction of chocolate as a substitute for men have made American society believe that chocolate really is an appropriate, even desirable, candidate for a woman to have a relationship with.
Chocolate fits into relationships in a variety of ways, but always it carries a feminine connotation. Its status as a heterosexual gift could be changed with a large media effort, but its feminine status will not be so easily altered.
Aaron, Shara, and Monica Bearden. Chocolate: A Healthy Passion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2008. Print.
Anderson, L. V. “Cuckoo for Cocoa.” Slate 13 Feb. 2012: n. pag. Web. 4 May 2015.
Kawash, Samira. “Sex and Candy.” The New York Times 14 Feb. 2014, Opinion Pages sec.: A31. The New York Times. 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 4 May 2015.
Nutter, Kathleen B. “From Romance to PMS: Images of Women and Chocolate in Twentieth-Century America.” Edible Ideologies: Representing Food and Meaning. By Kathleen LeBesco and Peter Naccarato. Albany: State U of New York, 2008. N. pag. Print.
Parkin, Katherine J. Food Is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2006. Print.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.
“Who Consumes the Most Chocolate?” CNN. N.p., 17 Jan. 2012. Web. 4 May 2015.
TV Ad – Axe Dark Chocolate Temptation: Chocolate Man. Adapt. adsoftheworld. YouTube. N.p., 3 Dec. 2007. Web. 3 May 2015.
DK, Anna. Retro poster, “Because chocolate can’t get you pregnant” Digital image. Bird Reynolds. N.p., 24 May 2012. Web. 5 May 2015.
1967 Brach’s Valentine Chocolates. Digital image. AdClassix. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2015.
The Sexiest Ad for the Sweetest Thing. Adapt. ZazulaTheGreat. YouTube. N.p., 14 Mar. 2007. Web. 1 May 2015.