Chocolate seems to permeate our lives. It saturates the grocery shelves during the holiday seasons and appears on our television screens. It is a true constant in our rapidly-changing world. Because our modern world is always developing, how has chocolate maintained permanent-product status? The easy answer is: sugar. Several hundred years ago when sugar first emerged onto the European food scene, it was a new and exciting ingredient from Mesoamerica that served many uses. It began as an expensive superfluous supplement to the natural European diet, but after two centuries, sugar had become a staple to the English diet and essential to the rest of Europe (Prof. Martin Lecture). This kind of integration was not isolated to sugar. Chocolate made the journey from a fancy, elite delicacy to a common household item… or so it seems. As this article of fun facts reveals, Modern day “Americans consume 2.8 billion pounds of chocolate each year, or over 11 pounds per person” which is much more than the average for Europeans. I argue that although statistics show that the common person consumes great amounts of chocolate, it still retains its original status as a highbrow item despite its price. This is best showcased by the chocolate sections at CVS.
There are a couple of different places to find chocolate at CVS, each with their own chief marketing purpose. The first is in the candy aisle. Here you can find the label “bagged chocolate” and see an assortment of chocolate from big, well-known companies like Hershey, Reese’s, etc. They all have seemingly endless variations of dark, milk, and white chocolate, sometimes mixed with peanut butter, nuts, or other embellishments. As you walk into the aisle, the sheer amount of options is overwhelming. The range of your selection makes them all seem to blend together. It is even hard to read each label individually because your eye is constantly being drawn elsewhere by cartoon images and bright colors. Eventually, you just go with what you know. This is either a run-of-the-mill choice like plain milk chocolate or something slightly more niche like salted caramel dark chocolate. In the case of a more niche preference, you will likely already know its position in the aisle because it does not change. Never at eye-level, your bag of salted caramel dark chocolate is eternally juxtaposed to the bag of mint milk chocolate, both sold by the same company. At any given CVS, they will sometimes be on a high level but more often than not, they will be off to the side. This particular bag of chocolate will reside at shin-level so you have to bend down to pick it up. It never goes on sale. But your friend has a slightly different experience. You see, she is a big fan of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate, no almonds or other extras. She needs two bags because finals are coming up and she stress eats when she feels bloated. She turns into the candy aisle, finds the sign indicating the chocolate, and walks right up to inspect her choices. She does not have to look for long. As she glances to the side, her eyes find the Hershey’s label and her brain immediately recognizes the color. She grabs two bags since there is a sale that applies to this type of chocolate (second bag is 50% off!) and you both head to the front of the store to pay.
Now let’s say that you and your friend prefer the finer things in life. Pretend that there has been a tragic epidemic and every chocolatier in your immediate vicinity has been destroyed. This leaves CVS as your only option for buying chocolate. The two of you cannot eat “commoners chocolate,” whatever that means (you and your friend are chocolate-snobs) so you head to the “Premium Chocolates” stand that CVS has on display. There is a notable absence of plastic bags and cartoon labels, no bright colors that remind you of late Halloween nights. The characteristics of this section that stand out to you are the highbrow-looking packaging, lack of “Big Chocolate” name brands (or so you think), and the fact that the vast majority of the packaging features some sort of picture of smooth chocolate.
Because you and your friend prefer everyone to know the percentage of cocoa that your chocolate is, you grab a package from eye-level that advertises “85% Cocoa” in big, bold letters beneath the word “Excellence” written in a super fancy script font. This chocolate is slightly pricier than the chocolate in other areas of CVS so you and your friend agree to split the bag. Then you both head to the counter to pay.
In both situations, you have to pass the “impulse buy” test. As you wait in line to pay, you are surrounded by shelves of mini-sized candy. It is a slue of small packaging, with candy, gum, donuts, and chocolate all mixed together. The gum is at the top because it is the easiest to justify in a situation where you need to freshen up your breath. Directly below the gum are four entire shelves of candy, mostly chocolate. This is a departure from the fancy marketing you saw earlier. It is a return to the “Big Chocolate” name brands like Hershey. In contrast to the chocolate aisle, this chocolate is being sold in much smaller quantities. Its small size and location in the store point to a popular marketing ploy that stores like to use, especially in America. In America, we are very susceptible to the “impulse buy.” It is very easy to justify buying a small chocolate candy bar on your way out of CVS than buying a whole bag. Even further, these candies are not at adult-eye level but they are positioned perfectly to draw the attention of any child who walks past them. You, however, are not a child. You wait your turn and pay for your chocolate at the cash register. Then you leave CVS, concluding your shopping experience.
These elaborate scenarios showcase various ways that chocolate plays a part in our everyday lives. For instance, the way that companies choose to visually represent their chocolate speaks to how we perceive chocolate. The “Premium Chocolates” section is a perfect example of this. In “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics”, Mary Norton discusses how sociologists and cultural historians “have eschewed biological or economic determinism and instead theorize taste as socially constructed” (Norton, 663). She uses Mintz’ work on sugar’s development “from a medicinal additive to a luxury good among the upper classes” to complement his argument that “sugar ‘embodied the social position of the wealthy and powerful.’ He points to ‘sugar’s usefulness as a mark of rank—to validate one’s social position. To elevate others, or to define them as inferior.’” (Norton/Mintz). This seems antiquated to us in modern day but it really holds true to society’s perception of chocolate. If you take into account the countless ads like this one that present chocolate as a luxury item that should be desired, then it becomes easier to see why presenting their product as “Premium Chocolates” is an effective marketing tactic used by Lindt and Ghirardelli in CVS.
Looking at this commercial, the first thing to notice is the incredible CGI they have used to recreate Audrey Hepburn, an icon of class and elegance. There is classic music playing in the background. Audrey Hepburn leaves the public transport bus and makes the transition into a handsome man’s car where he proceeds to act as her chauffeur as she eats chocolate in the backseat. This is a very clear way of associating chocolate with a certain lavish lifestyle that mirrors the purpose of the upscale display at CVS. This demonstrates how chocolate is still thought of as a luxury good despite its frequency.
Similarly, you can discern the intended audience from the location and price of the chocolate. In the chocolate aisle and the section right before the cash register, the position of the chocolate can reveal many things. If it is at eye-level for an adult, odds are that product is very popular. An example of this is the Hershey’s chocolate staple: plain dark chocolate. If the product is more particular, it is likely that it will be on a different shelf in order to make room for the standard products. One exception to this rule is when products are placed at the eye-level of children. Today, ads everywhere target kids because they want to create costumers for life. This has various ethical complications, not the least of which are explored in the article “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies” by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens. Their article describes the way sugar’s detrimental effects on public health were covered up by greedy corporations. Along the way, scientific research has found that “sugar and its nearly chemically identical cousin, HFCS, may very well cause diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, and that these chronic conditions would be far less prevalent if we significantly dialed back our consumption of added sugars” (Taubes). The ethical complications arise when the companies knowlingly advertised their product that contained unhealthy ingredients without making the public fully aware of their effects. There is also research that links the overconsumption of sucrose and HFCS to obesity and type 2 diabetes, both of which disproportionately affect young people. Ad campaigns like this one from Cadbury target young people in an effort to foster a relationship between the child and the brand so that as an adult, their potential purchasing power increases because of their trained loyalty to the specific company.
The ad works likes a commercial to kids for kids. The use of children and upbeat music to advertise chocolate is a convincing strategy to associate chocolate with fun. This targeting of children as consumers is demonstrated in stores like CVS where chocolate is placed in the perfect position for children to recognize them from ads on television and the internet.
Chocolate might seem like a normal treat that you indulge in after a difficult day, but if you look deeper into your own perception of chocolate, you will learn that it is integral to multiple societal structures. Not only can you see from the different placements of chocolate in CVS that it is associated with elitism and opulence, but it is also incredibly gendered. This post on reddit.com by user Te1221 establishes the subconscious connection between chocolate and women.
The caption is “CVS boosted chocolate sales this year” which implies that its location next to female hygienic products would help it sell more. The suggestion that women on their period are more likely to buy chocolate is widely spread idea. This is just a small example of how chocolate can really represent institutions within our society like gender (like power through its elitism).
Just from looking at chocolate placement in a CVS in Harvard Square, you can begin to understand its intrinsic nature. Chocolate is a symbol of delicacy, power, femininity, and sinfulness (both in relation to physical health and sexually). All you need to do is look.
Norton, Marcy. 2006. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111 (3): 660-691
Mintz, Sidney W. “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History” (New York, 1985), 140, 139, 153, 166–167.
Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, Feb. 15, 2017.
Taubes, Gary, and Cristin Kearns Couzens. “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies.” Mother Jones. Nov/Dec. 2012. Web. 04 May 2017. <http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign>.