Sugar today is one of the most commonplace ingredients, and yet it wasn’t always this way. From the first introduction of sugar to England in the twelfth century to the elites’ increased interest in sugar around the late seventeenth century, British and therefore global sugar consumption has gone through many phases (Mintz 74). The consequences of increased production and scientific properties of sugar on increased sugar consumption have been well-researched, but the influence of marketing is not discussed as much. Thus, I will highlight the significance of marketing as another important driver of sugar consumption in recent times.
At first, sugar served a much more utilitarian purpose and was not considered to be a food in and of itself. As many technological innovations had yet to be invented, sugar was primarily used as a method of preservation in foods such as marmalades and jams. It also served as a coating for meats (Goody 73). In addition, sugar was utilized as decoration or medicine, with the latter resulting from Arab pharmacology influences. But around the fourteenth century, sugar began to be associated with the elite in Western Europe as it was considered to be a prized spice (Mintz 80). Its relative novelty and low supply to other condiments created a symbol of status for sugar and would continue to do so until sugar became more profitable.
Towards the eighteenth century, processing and shipping sugar became much more efficient and therefore cheaper, and thus sugar consumption started to spread beyond the elites. As soon as the poor gained access to sugar, the condiment lost its association with power and status. It became a commonplace ingredient rather than a rare commodity. Coinciding with increases of tea imports, the poor began to use sugar as a sweetener of both tea and bread-like foods. Once sugar became inexpensive, its use as an ingredient in pastries, puddings, and beverages skyrocketed (Mintz 118-125).
Mass consumption of sugar began after about 1850 (Mintz 148). Changing working conditions for the people in England led to a need for inexpensive but nutritious sources of food, and the inexpensive production of sugar allowed for the increased demand (Mintz 130). Businesses immediately capitalized on this; indeed, eventually they began to market sugar as calorically dense and a quick, convenient boost of energy. Needing to save time on cooking as wives began to work as well, the working-class shifted to more ‘convenience eating’ and less traditional home-cooked meals (Mintz 130). In this way, the English diet became accustomed to a high intake of sugar in tea and bread as sugar was a cheap source of fuel (Martin Lecture 4). The advertisements linked below are examples of the types of marketing utilized to lure mothers into purchasing high quantities of sugar: https://time.com/4088772/sugar-information-history/
Specific advertisements targeting women and children furthered the idea of sugar as a staple in the household diet as women were responsible for all the cooking. The common quote we know today, “Sugar and spice and everything nice…that’s what little girls are made of,” is but a clever rhyme conjured up by sugar manufacturers in an attempt to sell more of their product (Martin). Indeed, the curious observation that women are much more associated with sweets remains today (Mintz 150). And interestingly enough, women are the primary buyers of chocolate year-round except for the week of Valentine’s Day (Martin Lecture 3).
There are many examples of the instances in which marketing has influenced the sugar products we know and love today. Chocolate bars, for instance, are some of the most well-known sugar-added products. By the 1900’s, a plethora of England chocolate manufacturers were in business; the famous candy conglomerates, Cadbury and Hershey, were fighting it out to become the top seller of chocolate bars with a barrage of advertisements and sales (Brenner 182). Today, many beverages also have incredibly high amounts of sugar. In the past, sugar was primarily added to drinks like tea and alcohol (Mintz 142). Soda has overtaken these as the primary sugar beverage. The ubiquity of soda is partly to blame on manufacturer advertisements, which again target children. Misleading packaging and label confusion, especially on drinks that claim to have fruit in them, have contributed to the fact that sugary drinks constitute a large portion of sugar consumed by children (Jacobs). Indeed, much research has shown that our sugar intake has become startlingly high:
Sugar did not start out as an additive. Over time, businesses capitalized on increased production and changing working-class lifestyles to sell more sugar through targeted marketing. As more and more sugar products were invented over time, society became more and more addicted. This has led us to the ever-increasing amounts of sugar we take in today—one has to wonder if our levels of sugar consumption will ever plateau.
Brenner, Joel. 2000. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. chapters 5, 13 pp. 49-69, 179-194
Goody, Jack. 2013. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” pp. 72-88
The contemporary cacao-chocolate industry benefits greatly from seasonal sales surrounding major American holidays. In the U.S. market, Easter/Passover, Christmas/Hannukah, Halloween, and St. Valentine’s Day see large spikes in candy and chocolate sales. These contemporary patterns of chocolate purchasing and consumption are intimately bound to a broader historical and social context. By exploring associations between chocolate and each of these major candy-selling holidays, I analyze the legacies of colonialism, religious debates, gender stereotypes, and industrialization in modern consumption and gift-giving patterns.
The candy industry is a giant in the U.S. economy. Nielson (2015) reports that candy, including chocolate and non-chocolate products, is the third top-selling category among food and non-alcoholic beverage categories in America with $20.8 billion in sales in 2014. American consumers buy candy year-round, making up the majority of all candy dollar sales (Nielson 2015). However, seasonal candy sales are a fast-growing sector of the candy industry, increasing by 5.8% in 2014 (Nielson 2015). Nearly 20% of all annual candy sales in 2014 occurred during five top-selling holiday weeks (Nielson 2015). These top 5 holiday weeks are, in order of greatest to least candy sales: Easter/Passover, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Pre-Christmas/Hanukkah, and Christmas/Hanukkah (Nielson 2015). During each of these holiday seasons chocolate sales spike along with the sales of all candies. Chocolate is an illustrative example that sheds light on broader changes in consumption and underlying social meanings over time.
Winter Holidays and Hot Chocolate: A Colonial Legacy
The Judeo-Christian winter holidays of Christmas and Hannukah account for two of the top five weeks of all candy sales in the United States. Chocolate is an important part of these holidays. During Hannukah, traditional chocolate coins wrapped in gold and silver foil are gifted to children (Prichep 2014). During Christmas celebrations, people bake chocolate chip cookies for Santa Claus and exchange chocolates as gifts. Throughout the winter holidays, hot chocolate is a special treat. In the following clip from the Polar Express, a children’s Christmas movie, hot chocolate is associated with the Christmas holiday and is depicted as a childhood luxury.
Chocolate as a beverage has a long and complex history that highlights European colonialism. Chocolate is one preparation of the beans from the tree theobroma cacao. Cacao was first domesticated and consumed by Mesoamerican Olmec, Aztec, and Maya peoples (Coe and Coe 1996). For these indigenous Mesoamericans, cacao was a beverage, not a solid bar (Sampeck and Thayn 2017). The most treasured part of the cacao beverage was the foam, which was produced by pouring the beverage on high from one vessel to another and later by mixing with a molinillo (a colonial invention) (Coe and Coe 1996). The image below depicts a Maya woman pouring cacao to create foam as was common practice. Today, we still add foam to our hot chocolate in the form of marshmallows and whipped cream (Coe and Coe 1996, 49; Leissle 2018). Contrary to modern hot chocolate, cacao was sometimes consumed cold by the Mesoamericans (Coe and Coe 1996). Maya and Aztec elites also exchanged cacao as a gift in royal marriages, military victories, holiday ceremonies, and political negotiations (Leissle 2018). The history of chocolate as a beverage and gift extends to the very origins of domesticated cacao.
Hot chocolate came to resemble what we know today through European colonial modification. Spanish colonizers came to refer to all cacao preparations as chocolate because the most profitable cacao-producing region, Izalcos, was known for a specific preparation named “chocolatl” (Sampeck and Thayn 2017, 79). Cacao was introduced to Europe by Spanish colonizers as “chocolate,” a hot beverage. Europeans adapted the traditional cacao beverages to include ingredients that were common in Europe, such as cinnamon, almonds, sugar, and floral elements (Sampeck and Thayn 2017, 85). Chocolate-drinking spread among the European royalty via intermarriage, and material culture developed around chocolate (Coe and Coe 1996). The French elite served chocolate in a silver chocolatiere with porcelain cups and saucers, which can also be seen in the clip from Polar Express (Coe and Coe 1996, 158-9). North American chocolate tastes and recipes most closely resemble the British and European preparations of hot chocolate, transmitted to America during our own colonial period (Sampeck and Thayn 2017, 89). Thus, the story of hot chocolate and its significant place in our own holidays draws heavily on early Mesoamerican rituals and traditions as well as colonial European modifications. The experience of a creamy hot chocolate today is intimately bound to a legacy of colonialism.
Easter, Chocolate, and the Church
The Easter and Passover spring holidays account for the single greatest week of candy sales annually. In the week preceding Easter in 2014 Americans spent $823 million on candy and purchased 146 million pounds of sweets (Fahey 2016). This level of consumption is interesting given the history of chocolate, the Catholic church, and the Lenten season.
In the Catholic religious tradition, the Easter holiday marks the end of Lent, months of fasting and reflection. Upon cacao’s introduction to European society, the Catholic clergy debated whether consuming chocolate beverages broke the fast. Catholic missionaries were active in the colonization and Christianization of indigenous Mesoamericans and had early exposure to cacao. Beginning in 1591 with Juan de Cardenas, militant clergymen argued that, though beverages (as chocolate was in those days) were generally exempt from the fast, chocolate offered substantial nourishment, which would break the fast (Coe and Coe 1996, 149). Debates raged in the clergy for nearly three centuries over the issue of chocolate and the fast, pitting the chocolate-trading Jesuits against the puritanical Dominicans (Coe and Coe 1996, 149). Seven Catholic popes commented on the issue over the years, arguing that consuming chocolate would not break the Lenten fast (Coe and Coe 1996, 150). Perhaps these clerical debates set us down the path of viewing chocolate as a sinful indulgence. Regardless, the heightened consumption of candy and chocolate for the Easter holiday marks the end of the fast and a time for celebratory indulgence. Had the Dominicans won the debate over chocolate and the fast, perhaps we would not see such excessive candy purchases in the week preceding Easter.
St. Valentine’s Day and Gendered Chocolate
Valentine’s Day is yet another major holiday for the chocolate industry. The holiday on which romantic partners gift heart-shaped boxes of chocolates to one another is also part of a broader context. Chocolate in particular is a common gift on Valentine’s Day because of its historical association with fertility. In indigenous Mesoamerican societies, cacao was considered an aphrodisiac and gifted at weddings for fertility (Coe and Coe 1996). The idea of chocolate as an aphrodisiac carried over into European societies and lingers to this day, though it has no factual basis. As Henderson (2015) and Butler (2018) detail, early chocolate companies began marketing their chocolates with romantic imagery, such as heart-shaped boxes and “kisses.” The association between chocolate and Valentine’s Day is a celebration of heterosexual romance that draws on a history of chocolate as an aphrodisiac.
The gifting of chocolates on Valentine’s Day also draws heavily on gender stereotypes. On Valentine’s Day, men are expected to purchase and gift chocolate to women. In the Russell Stover Valentine’s Day commercial below, the intended audience is men, who are instructed to gift chocolate to women for the holiday.
In chocolate advertising and narratives surrounding Valentine’s Day, women are meant to be seduced by the sinfully indulgent chocolate and-by extension-the men who gifted it to them. The following Ferrero Rocher Valentine’s Day commercial depicts a woman who is seduced by the decadent chocolate and subsequently embraces the romantic partner who gifts these chocolates to her. The message is one of chocolate as a tool in heterosexual relationships that men can use to seduce women.
Gender stereotypes in advertisements for Valentine’s Day chocolates are by no means a recent development. Narratives of male gifting of chocolates and female seduction are prevalent throughout past advertisements as well. The Whitman’s Sampler advertisement below is from 1936. In American society, Valentine’s Day chocolates are associated with a long context of heterosexual romance and the trope of the seduced woman.
Halloween and Industrialized Chocolates
Nielson (2015) reports that candy sales in the week preceding Halloween total $787 million, coming in at the second highest week for candy sales in 2014. Halloween in its modern form centers around pre-packaged, standardized candies, but this was not always the case. Kawash (2010) and Nix (2018) provide a brief history of Halloween and candy. In the early 20th century, candy makers were not targeting Halloween as a candy holiday (Kawash 2010). Trick-or-treating first emerged in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and Halloween handouts were not restricted to candy at this time (Kawash 2010). By the 1950’s candy became an inexpensive and convenient Halloween handout, but candy was not yet the exclusive Halloween treat (Kawash 2010). Candy eventually won out as the face of Halloween handouts in the 1970’s because it was industrialized, standardized, pre-packaged, and safe from tampering (Kawash 2010).
These trends between candy and Halloween closely follow developments in the cacao-chocolate industry. In the early 20th century, the big American chocolate manufacturers were just getting started. At the end of the 19th century, Frank Mars, founder of the Mars chocolate company (creator of M&Ms, Snickers, Mars bars, Milky Ways, etc.), was still watching his mother make homemade candies and sweets in the family kitchen (Brenner 2000, 50). For the first decade of the 20th century, Frank Mars was experimenting with small-scale candy distribution and failing repeatedly (Brenner 2000). By the 1920’s Mars had built a profitable chocolate company, but it wasn’t until his son, Forrest Mars, took control of the company in the 1960’s that Mars, Inc. became a giant in the American chocolate industry. Forrest Mars mechanized the factory, vertically integrated production, and industrialized the production and labor at every level (Brenner 2000).
Similar developments were occurring in the Hershey’s chocolate company. In the first decade of the 20th century, Milton Hershey was building his factory town at Hershey, Pennsylvania (D’Antonio 2006). The first Hershey’s Kiss was manufactured in 1907 (D’Antonio 2006). Milton Hershey industrialized his company by vertically and horizontally integrating production. Hershey’s chocolate factory did it all–from building trains to ship sugar from Cuba to housing workers to sourcing milk from local cows (D’Antonio 2006). This consolidation of Hershey’s supply chain took place over the first half of the 20th century. Hershey’s was the well-integrated and undisputed American national chocolate brand until the mid-20th century when competitors like Mars and Reese’s gained power in the national market (D’Antonio 2006; Brenner 2000).
By the time Halloween became a major candy holiday in the 1970’s, the American chocolate industry was dominated by Hershey’s and Mars (Martin 2019). Hershey’s and Mars alone make 84.2% of all snack-sized Halloween candy, with another 15.2% contributed by Nestle (Martin 2019). Internationally, the Big 5 chocolate companies (Hershey’s, Mars, Nestle, Kraft [Cadbury], and Ferrero) dominate the market (Martin 2019). Chocolate manufacturing and distribution is concentrated in an oligopoly of companies. The association of Halloween with pre-packaged, bite-sized candies emerged as these large companies developed and industrialized. Halloween as we know it today is a consequence of the industrialization and integration of the American chocolate industry.
In analyzing the history of chocolate in each of these major candy-selling holidays, I have uncovered legacies of colonialism, religious debate, gender stereotypes, and industrialization in the modern cacao-chocolate industry. To understand why and how the cacao-chocolate industry operates today, it is important to examine this broader social and historical context. Americans’ holiday favorites of hot chocolate, chocolate bunnies, heart-shaped chocolate boxes, and bite-sized chocolates were all brought to us via interesting legacies in the development of the chocolate industry. Next time you enjoy a foamy hot chocolate or Hershey’s kiss, consider the history of cacao and chocolate from its origins in indigenous Mesoamerica to its modern industrialization and mass marketing.
Sampeck, Kathryn E. and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Pps. 72-99 in Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, edited by S. Schwartzkopf and K.E. Sampeck. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Shoppe.” The two words that follow the name “Cardullo’s” begin to give a sense
of the products that one will find upon walking through the door at this store
in the heart of Harvard Square. Most shoppers will walk in and out of this
store rapidly today—picking products off the shelves, going to the register,
and going to their next destination wherever that may be. However, slowing this
shopping experience down can prove useful in studying the implications of the
food we consume on a daily basis. In this post, I will describe in detail the
chocolate selection at Cardullo’s and use the store’s chocolate selection as a
means for discussing several aspects of chocolate in our modern culture. What follows
will be an engagement of how chocolate selection can help us to understand
chocolate in society—from intended customer base to ethical considerations, to
name a few—as well as a discerning eye for areas where the chocolate industry
has dark secrets.
Cardullo’s can at times be nothing short of overwhelming—all of the shelves are
filled to capacity with assorted foods and drinks. Navigating chocolate-related
products alone yields a plethora of foods. With that, I have found it most useful
to define a specific type of selection that I will focus on in this post. To
allow for a more thorough, rather than surface-level, discussion, I have chosen
to focus on chocolate bars and exclude other confections and treats that have
chocolate as secondary ingredients. Doing so, I still am left with dozens of relevant
products lining Cardullo’s shelves. I have found it most useful to divide this
analysis into focusing on several components of the selection for the purpose
of clarity. I will start by analyzing the types of chocolate that I am seeing
as well as the prices of the chocolate. I will then focus on the labels and
In the images above, we see side-by-side
comparisons of two sections of Cardullo’s chocolate selection—on the left more
upmarket self-professed ‘craft’ brands, and on the right more traditional
mass-market items. Note the differences in appearances of the products, from
the packaging coloring, density of imagery/words on the labels, etc. These differences
will be explored in detail below.
One of the first aspects that strikes me as I consider the selection of chocolate is the names of many of the brands on the shelves. These brand names sound artisanal and personal—names like Raaza, Goodnow Farms, and Scharffen Berger. In a market that has a lot of competition, name distinctiveness can be a powerful branding tool (Ju, Jun and Sutherland, 2015). In a wall display located next to this sea of novel names are some familiar brands such as Cadbury, and even Snickers, suggesting that even multinational conglomerates have a place at this gourmet market. While it will be discussed in greater detail later relating to the labels, consider the differences in the visual imagery of the two sections of chocolate—that is, the artisanal brands and the more mass-market brands. Emblazoned across the front of almost all of the artisanal bars in large letters are the percentage of Cacao: 62% on one, 70% on another, 95% higher still. These craft chocolates are noticeably different than the mass-market chocolates sitting on shelves just a few steps away to the right, which are predominately milk chocolate. With that, we can start to get a sense that these craft chocolates at Cardullo’s are marketed to a different audience than the mass-market chocolates such as Snickers and Cadbury to the right.
Something that is common across all the bars of chocolate sold in Cardullo’s is that they are made from cacao that is produced outside of the United States. This is an important aspect to consider surrounding the history of chocolate, since the United States and Europe account for 73% of the consumption of cacao, whereas the production takes place elsewhere, with Africa accounting for 72% of the production of cacao (Martin, 2019). This has led to the rise of large-scale global supply chains that often involve many small farming operations to actually harvest the cacao, but also large multinational corporations involved with the production of the end-product chocolate bars (Martin and Sampeck, 2016, 50). The roots of this system of supply are colonialization and the presence of slavery, where cacao would be harvested in the colonies and then sent back to the colonizer for consumption (Mintz, 1986). Many of the chocolate companies that sell craft products at Cardullo’s pride themselves on being small operations that have direct contacts with the farmers (this will be discussed in greater detail when we examine the labels below). However, the question remains of whether this translates to more pay for the farmers of cacao themselves. With that, let us now turn to examining the price of these bars.
Almost immediately after seeing the types and brands of the chocolate at Cardullo’s, my eyes looked just below to the prices. The prices were high—there is no dispute. And for several of the bars, the prices themselves were hard to find—hidden perhaps to draw customers in instead of being put-off by the price tag. But before getting into the specifics of the price, let us consider the historical context of price. Centuries ago, chocolate was considered a food for the elites (Coe and Coe, 2007). It then became mass-produced alongside the rise of sugar in the European diet (Mintz, 1985). In America today, chocolate is regularly available to people of almost all socioeconomic levels. But this is not the case for the chocolate at Cardullo’s. Though the cheapest bar sold here retailed for under $5, the average price of chocolate bars was significantly higher—far closer to $10. So, what makes these chocolate bars more expensive than the average Hershey’s chocolate bar? There are few factors here to consider. The first is scale—many of these products are made in far smaller quantities and thus do not benefit from the economies of scale (Leissle, 2018, 101). Instead, it is a point of pride that these chocolates are made via the ‘single batch’ method.
There are also a variety of certifications that many of these chocolate bars have, some of which suggest that they pay farmers higher prices than the commodity price of cacao. Certifications are viewed as a way to address price fluctuations present in the commodity prices, and to effectively set price floors that ensures a standard minimum price. However, these higher prices paid for beans often go to middle-men rather than the farmer themselves. Additionally, the dizzying array of potential certifications—from Rainforest Alliance, to FairTrade, to Direct Trade just to name a few—leaves the consumer with more questions than answers. For some consumers, simply seeing one of these certifications may make them feel good about purchasing a product, however, legitimate questions still remain about how much these certifications actually do. This is especially true for small craft manufacturers who have higher costs due to the lack of economies of scale (Leissle, 2018). As Kristy Leissle explains, “certainly, some craft makers do pay premium prices for beans, but it is a mistake to assume that if a bar costs $10, nine of those must be going to a farmer. Chances are they are not” (Leissle, 2018, 101).
Ultimately, we must also consider the relatively inelastic price of chocolate. That is, for a product such as wine, people are willing to pay upwards of several thousand dollars for what is considered a premier wine. There are literally thousands of dollars that separate the price of nice wines from bad wines. However, chocolate bars that are considered greater than $20 seem to reach the tipping point of what people will pay for the bar.
Chocolate as a product has a long history of advertising that includes both derogatory racial and gender implications. For racism in advertising in particular, this is inextricably linked with the history of the cacao supply chain, including colonization and slavery. And the advertising itself holds undertones for the intended customer bases of products. For instance, consider the video advertisement for Dove chocolate below. The advertisement is sensual both in the depiction of the woman as well as the verbiage overlaid on the video by the narrator. It perpetuates the view put-forth in many chocolate advertisements that females are obsessive, sensual beings.
While the chocolate at Cardullo’s does not have such overt advertising in terms of gender or race to many historical examples such as Belgian Antwerp hands, there are nonetheless distinctive advertising choices made. Consider the labels below.
These two photos show the front and
back of a craft chocolate bar at Cardullo’s. Focusing on the label, the imagery
on the front shows an old-fashioned ship being built, eliciting feelings of
simplicity and handcrafting. The back includes a map that shows from where the
cacao originates and uses words such as “finest” “traditional” “carefully” and “small
elicit the customers to believe that the product is a return to the traditional—a
time when food was made simpler. It very clearly and cleanly discusses things
such as tasting nodes and the origin is visually depicted. The choices made on
this label are very deliberate, and appeal to an audience that cares about the
quality of the food that they put into their bodies.
Chocolate is a food that brings joy to many people who eat it in many forms. But as consumers, we must also look at the history of chocolate and understand the ugly truths of our current production system, especially when it comes to adequate living standards for farmers. Outside of fair prices alone, there are ongoing questions and issues surrounding workers ages, gender imbalances, and ethnicity and racial inequities throughout the cacao and chocolate industries. So next time you go into a store, I encourage you to pause for a few seconds and think about what choices you are making as a consumer with your purchasing power. There are a lot of implications for the purchasing choices we make, and a lot can be learned simply by looking at the foodstuffs on shelves.
Coe, S. & Coe, M. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and
Ju, I., Jun, J., & Sutherland,
J. (2015). I Have Seen That Brand Before! How Do Consumers Recognize Advertised
Brands? Brand Distinctiveness vs. Brand Differentiation. American Academy of Advertising. Conference. Proceedings
Leissle, K. (2018). Cocoa.
Newark: Polity Press.
(2019). Lecture January 30: Introduction. Harvard
Martin, C., & Sampeck, K. (2015). The bitter and sweet of chocolate in Europe. Socio.hu, (Special issue 3), 37-60.
Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power : The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books. the above images are my own taken at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe.
Dating back to the earliest known origins of chocolate—or rather its characteristic ingredient, cacao—this extraordinary substance has consistently been associated with socially intimate and aphrodisiacal properties. The particular manifestation of these aphrodisiacal properties, however, and how they have taken shape over time tells an interesting story of the power of media and advertising. Much of this early knowledge is situated around the ritual practices and mythology of the Maya civilization in the pre-Columbian period, during which cacao was heavily featured and revered in the context of fertility and marriage rites. In the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya documenting Mayan mythology, “when the gods were creating humans in their final form,” cacao was among the “foods which were to form their bodies” (Coe & Coe 39). This notion of cacao playing a role in the creation of human life is a recurring theme in surviving remnants of Mayan society, bringing to mind a clear connection with procreation and fertility. In much the same way, archeological/anthropological research has indicated the “widespread, perhaps even pan-Maya, use of chocolate in betrothal and marriage ceremonies” (Coe & Coe 60). Similar beliefs and rituals held true for Mixtec and Aztec societies, as we can see in this detail from the Codex Nuttall (Mixtec book) displayed below, or in the Aztec poem that refers to “‘flowering chocolate’ [as] a metaphor for luxuriousness and sensuality” (Coe & Coe 104).
Even more explicit, is the account of Spanish conquistador, Bernal Díaz de Castillo, upon attending a lavish Aztec banquet in which he writes about the emperor, including that “ they brought him some cups of fine gold, with a certain drink made of cacao, which they said was for success with women” (Coe & Coe 96). While this certainly speaks to the Spanish conquistadors’ beliefs and interpretations of cacao, whether there is any actual truth to this testimony is unsubstantiated. However this did not stop the notion of cacao as a sexual stimulant from spreading throughout Europe after it was first introduced in Spain. Almost a century after for instance, Dr. Henry Stubbes (1632-72), a prominent English authority on chocolate, was “convinced, as were most of his contemporaries in England and on the Continent, that chocolate was an aphrodisiac” (Coe & Coe 171).
If we fast forward to the 19th and early 20th centuries, these themes associated with chocolate seem to not only persist, but become ever-more present. This is likely the consequence of two key changes in the chocolate industry, the first being Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten’s 1828 invention of the hydraulic press, which allowed for the production of chocolate in solid form. The second shift lies in the industrialization of food, which gave way to mass production and, by extension, lower food costs, resulting in the democratization of chocolate (Coe & Coe 234-235). Considering its history as a substance once only available to the elite and wealthy upper echelons of society, this new potential for chocolate to be available and affordable to the masses meant immense economic opportunity—cue mass marketing. Chocolate advertising in its earlier days often featured women providing chocolate to their families, as the ideal wife and mother—roles which were both, at the time, at the forefront of any socially accepted notion of female identity. Kids were also considerably featured in these ads, thus by placing chocolate at the nucleus of the family bond, we are reminded of the original role cacao played in marriage and fertility for the Maya.
In a similar vein, ads in which chocolate is the embodiment of romance soon seem to take center stage—at least for those ads targeted toward males (which speaks to a whole other dimension on the gendering of foods, but I’ll leave that for another discussion). While this notion of chocolate is clearly linked to aphrodisia, it is also convenient for business when it comes to special occasions centered around love and affection, such as Valentine’s Day and anniversaries.
As is hinted at in the ads above, this idea of chocolate as the perfect gift for a girlfriend or wife goes beyond its supposed inherent powers of attraction, to suggest that it’s so irresistible that it could win over any woman. The implication here being that simply a box of chocolates can render a woman so feeble-minded and lacking control over her desires that it removes any sexual resistance. This, again, plays into sexist stereotypes of women as mindless, emotional, pretty, sweet objects, lacking any intelligence, authority, or confidence.
While it would be nice to think this sort of messaging has subsided in recent years, the truth of the matter is that this pattern of perpetuating socially prescribed feminine ideals and stereotypes, particularly in relation to romance and desire is still common practice, only less overtly sexist. A prime example of this is for an Axe commercial in which women uncontrollably lust over a man who, upon spraying Axe Dark Temptation, turns into a walking, talking piece of chocolate. Despite being cloaked in a veil of humor, this message here is no different from that found in earlier advertising.
In a similar vein, while society has changed over time to embrace more progressive values, namely freedom of sexual expression and independence, it’s interesting to see how chocolate advertising has used this to make even more explicit the connection between chocolate, desire, and pleasure—all the while often maintaining their use of female stereotypes and ideals, which only works to delay or set back feminist efforts. That is, women are sexualized, objectified, and interlaced with sexual innuendo in such ads where there is an apparent attempt to blur the lines between chocolate and sex. Oftentimes these advertisements are targeted towards women as a way of “encouraging self indulgence for a food that provides feelings equated to sex and love” (Fahim 7).
It’s quite interesting, or perhaps more than that, it’s rather informative of the power that lies in the hands of media and marketing to perpetuate a notion with little to no basis in fact, as evidenced by numerous studies debunking any real effect of chocolate on libido or as an aphrodisiac (Shamloul 2010, Brent 2018), yet remains at the core—in some way, shape, or form, of chocolate marketing strategy.
In analyzing the way these advertisements have marketed chocolate, we can see the progress of the way society views the female role. In the earlier times, we see how the importance of women in society is closely intertwined with reproduction as well as the simple-minded housewife trope, which was quite clearly reflected in the messaging of chocolate at the time. And, subsequently, as women’s expression of sexuality in media becomes more commonplace, the importance and relevance of chocolate in society comes in large part from overt and subtle references to its purported (yet unsubstantiated) supernatural or aphrodisiacs properties. Specifically, it aims to encourage “ self indulgence for a food that provides feelings equated to sex and love.
All that being said, while this current theme of hypersexuality, desire, and indulgence is unlikely to subside any time soon (especially considering it’s persisted over thousands of years), it will be interesting to see how and if the portrayal of women in ads related to chocolate will change in this new wave of female empowerment as a marketing strategy (e.g. the new Nike and Gillette ads), which still have their issues but show an overall positive progression towards gender equality.
The “bonbon-eating housewife” narrative is so pervasive that it has become a rallying cry for stay-at-home-moms who feel underappreciated and overworked despite their reputation for laziness. In dozens of blog posts, these stay-at-home mothers decry the injustice of this stereotype, mocking the image of the bon-bon obsessed housewife in satirical articles and feminist op-eds. It seems as though this stereotype became widely accepted with the advent of the multi-camera situational comedy — one of the most widely-known models of how American family life is and should be. Since the earliest days of the multi-camera sitcom, the modern housewife has been stereotyped in the media as indulgent, lazy, and chocolate-crazy. The 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy and the 1990s sitcom Married … With Children provide perspective on the evolution of this stereotype and gendered assumptions we make about chocolate confections and the people who consume them. Through analyzing contemporary criticism of the “lazy housewives with bonbons” archetype, we can develop an understanding of how modern feminism challenges this narrative and how chocolate could be less strongly associated with femininity in the future. This association between housewifery, misogynistic narratives about women’s economic value, and the bonbon can help us to more clearly understand the cultural relationship between chocolate and femininity.
First, we must explore what a chocolate bonbon is and how it became associated with middle-class womanhood. A bonbon is typically a piece of candy — usually nougat, caramel, or other soft candies — covered in a thin coating of chocolate. While truffles are traditionally defined as balls of chocolate ganache covered in a thicker layer of chocolate, Americans often use the terms “bonbon” and “truffle” interchangeably to describe a small, bite-sized, chocolatey piece of candy. “Bonbon” can be roughly translated to “goody goody” in French, and French confectioners have been creating these sweet, delicate treats for centuries (ChocolateNoise.com). In the pre-industrial period, bonbons were handmade luxury goods, filled with expensive ingredients like candied fruit and nuts. Without mechanized equipment, confectioners had to hand-temper chocolate and cook candy with unreliable heat sources, hand-craft and coat each morsel of candy with chocolate, and sell them in small storefronts (France Today). Therefore, bonbons were a small-batch luxury good rather than a treat that any housewife could afford.
With the dawn of industrialization, many confectioners could streamline the process of producing bonbons. By the 19th century, confectioners could use mechanized equipment to produce bonbons more quickly and reliably — they no longer had to hand-sculpt each candy. The benefits of this more efficient bonbon-making process can be seen in the below video, in which a confection uses industrial cooking vessels and molds to easily produce many bonbons (Insider).
Increased sugar production in the Caribbean and other European colonial territories made sugary goods of every variety more affordable for middle- and working-class families (Mintz, 174). By the 20th century, a variety of bonbons and truffles were being produced in the United States, including the ice cream bonbon, which were largely sold in movie theaters and sports stadiums in addition to grocery stores (The Nibble). A 1988 New York Times article mentioned ice cream bonbons as one of international food conglomerate Nestle’s most popular chocolate products (Feder). Today, Americans buy over 36 million boxes of chocolate (typically filled with bonbons) for Valentine’s Day every year (Shah)! Clearly, the chocolate bonbon is one of America’s most treasured chocolate confections, but it is not clear how modern Americans came to associate bonbons with lazy stay-at-home mothers and the fraught gender politics of womanhood and work.
Perhaps the earliest example of this “lazy bonbon-eating housewife” stereotype can be found in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnazs’ semi-autobiographical 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. In the show, Lucy is depicted as a funny, confident, and somewhat scatterbrained wife and mother. In contrast to other television mothers from the so-called “Golden Age of Television” (the late 1940s to the early 1960s), Lucy was the star of the show and frequently proved her husband wrong. Where Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver was demure, Lucy was vibrant and opinionated. Where The Honeymooners’ Alice Kramden was bitter, Lucy was witty and pleasant. However, despite her character’s originality and complexity, Lucy was still subject to the gender expectations of her time. Like many married woman of her time, Lucy was a housewife and stay-at-home mother, and I Love Lucy frequently focused on disagreements between breadwinner Ricky Ricardo and his supposedly-lazy wife.
This conflict came to a head in the famous I Love Lucy episode “Job Switching” ( In the episode, Ricky accuses Lucy of being a lazy spendthrift who doesn’t appreciate how hard he works to put food on the table. In turn, Lucy accuses Ricky of failing to understand how difficult it is to be a homemaker. To settle their disagreement, Lucy and Ricky agree to switch jobs — Lucy and her friend Ethel spend a day making bonbons in a chocolate factory because they are talented makers and consumers of bonbons. At the same time, Ricky and Ethel’s husband Fred spend the day as “housewives.” Both groups fail spectacularly at their new “jobs,” as seen in the clips below.
This seems to reinforce the idea that Lucy and Ethel are naturally suited to housewifery while Ricky and Fred are naturally suited to work outside the home. When Lucy and Ricky resolve their differences at the end of the episode, Ricky presents Lucy with a five pound box of chocolates to show his appreciation for her hard work (This Was Television). This joke is ironic because Lucy has just spent a terrible day working in a chocolate factory, but also because housewives stereotypically love a box of chocolate bonbons. Early 1950s sitcoms were largely not as interested in subverting or exploring gender stereotypes as they were in reinforcing these stereotypes. Because Lucy in many ways represented the “model housewife,” she was traditionally feminine, took pleasure in domestic work and motherhood, and devoted to her husband. Her stereotypically feminine love of chocolate bonbons was an integral part of this “zany domestic goddess” image.
By the 1990s, many sitcoms were significantly less interested in upholding “traditional family values.” For example, in the irreverent sitcom Roseanne, eponymous main character Roseanne was a beleaguered working mother rather than a cheerful, polished housewife, and family comedy Full House abandoned the traditional nuclear family model altogether, instead centering around three men raising a family together. Perhaps no series embodies the genre-bending 1990s sitcom better than Married… With Children. The show centers around the Bundy family: Al, a misanthropic shoe salesman; Peggy, a profoundly lazy housewife; and their often-bratty children, Kelly and Bud. In many ways, Married… With Children is a perverse satire of the traditional family sitcom a la I Love Lucy, particularly because Peggy Bundy makes little effort to be an exemplary wife, mother, and homemaker. Instead, Peggy spends every day literally sitting on her couch and eating chocolate bonbons. Bonbons have become so closely associated with the character of Peggy Bundy that multiple recipes can be found online for “Peggy Bundy’s Bonbons,” including a recipe for “Peggy Bundy’s Lazy Day Coconut Bonbons.” The recipe description characterizes Peggy as “selfish and lazy” and associates theses qualities with Peggy’s habit of “watching Oprah and eating bonbons” (Eat Out Loud).
This association between Peggy’s gender, occupation, character, and love of chocolate bonbons is an extreme example of the way in which the “housewife with bonbons” stereotype had become widespread by the late 20th century. Peggy Bundy was the embodiment of every negative stereotype about housewives in the 1990s, when the female employment rate reached its all-time high of 57.4% by the end of the decade (Statista). Her ever-present box of chocolate bonbons signaled to the audience that she was the quintessential self-indulgent housewife who did not “produce” anything. Today, many online articles about the character, published by news and tabloid outlets like Time, Newsday, and Us Magazine mention her love of bonbons in describing her laziness and self-centeredness. Clearly, bonbons have been largely recast as an affordable, indulgent treat for the lazy housewife rather than handmade luxury items at the pinnacle of haute-patiserie. Peggy Bundy embodies our contemporary anxieties around the role of women as housewives as many women seek employment outside of the home, as well as our understanding of once-expensive goods as mass-produced commodities in the industrial era.
This popular association between one of television’s most dysfunctional mothers and the chocolate bonbon has sparked an online movement among housewives. The “housewives and bonbons” stereotype has become a reference point for many discussions of the value of women’s domestic work, like an Ohio housewife’s blog Bonbons and Martinis: The Diary of a Modern Housewife (BonBons & Martinis); satirical articles on housewife-oriented media outlets like the article “Children Removed From Home Where SAHM Eats Bonbons And Watches TV All Day” on SammichesandPsychMeds.com (Sammiches and Psych Meds); and practical columns in women’s magazines, like the article “9 Things Not to Say to a Stay-At-Home-Mom” in Women’s Day. This rejection of the “housewives and bonbons” stereotype isn’t necessarily an anti-feminist paean to the virtues of motherhood. Rather, they can be understood as a feminist reclamation of the value of traditionally-female domestic labor, whether the authors of these articles would label themselves feminists or not. In the same way that I Love Lucy’s Lucy Ricardo refused to let her husband degrade her work as a housewife and Married… With Children’s Peggy Bundy embraced her box of bonbons instead of becoming a picture-perfect stay-at-home-mom, these housewives are rejecting the stereotype that they are either a Lucy Ricardo or a Peggy Bundy.
Chocolate has fallen from its archaic divinity; as industrial chocolate manufactures, such as Hershey, Ghirardelli, Cadbury, Mars, L.A. Burdick and the multitudes of other small and large confectionary manufactures have strategically subverted religion and evaded the creation of a static definition of what can be classified as health food (Off, 2008). This has been done on a global scale (Allen, 2010). Yet, for all of the exploitation of natural and human labor resources in the mad capitalist race to net exponentially larger profits, methods of chocolate consumption have changed. Chocolate has invaded every home in America and continues to spread into even the most remote regions of the world were chocolate is merely grown as a exported market good (and the farmers have never tasted the finished product) (Leissle, 2012) (Martin 2016) (Stuckey, 2012). Modern chocolate consumption has continuously increased and transformed from a relished delicacy into an addiction, one that has fostered a cultic fanaticism in its omnipresence in American culture (Martin, 2016). Chocolate addiction has been fostered by dynamic consumption practices, various health benefits, ideals of beauty, sexualization of female chocolate consumption, and the reframing of sales advertisements to secularize and/or create holidays revolving around chocolate consumption (Leissle, 2012) (Howe, 2012) (Robertson, 2009) (Martin, 2016). Addiction is an all encompassing cultural mindset which has gone further in the continued liminal state of chocolate’s meaning to contemporary American society (Benton, 2004) (Robertson, 2009). Average American households often are not aware that their chocolate consumption is irrevocably linked to the various external methods of ideological implantation of chocolate as a religious iconographic good. A brief ethnographic analysis of an average New England household, comprising of my future in-laws, engenders a radical deviation from chocolate as a coveted, addictive necessity and furthers chocolate’s ideological transformation by coming full circle to again reify chocolate’s worship as a physical manifestation of divinity.
Cacao, or Kakawa, is a substance similar to maize, corn, in its purveyance in Mesoamerican culture and religious iconography (Coe & Coe, 2013). Cacao is also shown in Mayan iconography to have been conflated with the Maize god, this has rendered archaeological interpretations of cacao as the food of the gods (Coe & Coe, 2013). Ancient associations of cacao with the food of divinity has not been lost in modern methods of advertisement (Leissle, 2012). Even analyses of chocolate advertisements can be interpreted to illustrate that chocolate and divinity are intrinsically linked. Capitalism has not so subtlety transformed and secularized religious holidays by constructing the consumption of chocolate as a ritualized activity, in which participants (consumers) will be glorified and feel euphoria through acts the giving and receiving chocolates (Martin, 2016) (Robertson, 2009). Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and even the forty days of Lent have all become associated with chocolate consumption (Coe & Coe, 2013). Lent is the most indicative of chocolate’s association with divinity, through its construction as a vice (particularly for women) which should be avoided so as to liken oneself to the divinity of Christ’s fast and then temptation by Lucifer in the desert. My fiancée’s (F) family is traditionally Irish-Catholic, like much of the greater Boston area, and has their roots firmly set in the nomenclature of religious etiquette. However, like many religious followers, they merely retain a religiously linked ethnic identity. This is not to say that they do not follow a set of religious rituals that underpin their daily lives, but the god (chocolate) to which they devote both cognitive and subconscious worship, is revealed through the family’s vocalization and ritualization of chocolate consumption. Through almost a year of total emersion into their household I have observed both passively and actively their emphasis on the importance of ritual chocolate consumption. By cooking, and baking, with the father (FD); observing F’s sister’s food habits (FS); and through consensual approval to inquire about their chocolate habits during informally structured interviews, I have captured a snapshot of the ethnographic phenomenon by which chocolate has been re-deified.
Anonymity Disclaimer: all proper names are changed to protect anonymity and personal privacy.
The demographic biological sex ratio in my fiancée’s family, including myself, is three females to two males. I entered their household in June 2015, as it was the most convenient way to save up money for our wedding and attend school. My fiancée and her sister both have severe cases of mental illnesses, and have self-proclaimed themselves vegetarians, which has inhibited their ability to consume a wide variety of food products. Prior to my debut, F’s family cooked for and brought FS any food that FS desired, while FS was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe agoraphobia. During this period and into the first several months of living with the F-in-laws, the father (FD) and mother (FM) brought FS mass quantities of sweets (per her request)- the vast majority of which contained chocolate in some form. These sweets were then incorporated into FS’s daily diet through both home cooked treats and purchased delicacies. So pervasive was chocolate into the kitchen and pantry, I could not open the refrigerator without stumbling upon 8 out of 10 items containing chocolate. Even F considered pancakes unsatisfying is they did not contain chocolate chips, accompanied by chocolate milk, and chocolate croissants, from FD’s crafting or purchased from the local French bakery. Upon my alien perspective into this near total emersion of chocolate into every aspect of nutrition, as I prefer recipe purity without the forced inclusion of chocolate, F’s mother (FM) made it quite clear that the extant to which chocolate was considered medicinal. Even long-standing family recipes, such as their grandmother’s scone recipe, that originally contained fruit changed to substitute chocolate chips; this was celebrated not only by F’s immediate family but the extended relatives as well. F, FD, and FM prefer dark chocolate; FS prefers milk chocolate. Methods of dietary consumption are among the easiest to witness, but also the amount to which F’s family purchases or crafts feminine hygiene products known to contain cocoa butter, and the amount of objects, utensils, and other paraphernalia used in the consumption, production, promotion, or distribution of chocolate.
Saying that their mass consumption of all things chocolate is a product of the historical engendering of chocolate as healthy for dietary consumption limits the extent to which FM’s concept of medicinal use resonates with the subjectivity of healthy consumption (Albritton, 2012) (Watson, Preedy, & Zibadi, 2013). FS suffered tremendous weight gain from overconsumption of carbohydrates and sugars (Albritton, 2012), most in the form of chocolate pastries and confections, but FM continued to supply these “medicinal” chocolates. In accordance with popular conceptions of the medicinal use of chocolate, it historically has been linked to a healthy state of mind and postulated to aid the treatment of mental illnesses such as “hypochondriac melancholy“(Watson, Preedy, & Zibadi, 2013). FM’s utilization of chocolate as a medical ritual to expedite the healing of FS’s mental faculties echoes: the Mesoamerican use of cacao as a restorative of the deities, the early European adoption of cacao as a similar but secularized restorative devoid of divine embodiment, and contemporary literature on chocolate’s ability to illicit pleasure responses from the brain. Contemporary concepts of chocolate’s medicinal use illuminate the chocolate industry’s persistent norms of advertisement and the increase of processed sugar consumption and sugar additives into nearly all forms of processed foodstuffs. Yet FM’s use goes beyond these analyses and parallels the sentiments that “‘chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea, and universal medicine'” (Coe & Coe, 2013: 206). While FM’s use may be a product of the historical connections of chocolate and sugar with pleasure and medicine, through the incorporation of chocolate into the entirety of the family’s diet, chocolate has been ritualized and elevated beyond the simple medicinal binary to that of a religious deity, with whom daily worship will foster inner-peace, health, and happiness in its followers. FM’s deification of chocolate retains striking parallels to the Christian description of a personal daily relationship with God, as advertised by the Bible.
F’s family’s ritual utilization of chocolate’s medicinal benefits are the product of historical polemics concerning the increase of sugar consumption, the socio-economic shift of chocolate from Mesoamerican stable to European luxury to plebian stable, and subliminally engendering advertisements (Coe & Coe, 2013). Sugar has been directly linked to diabetes, obesity, and increasing addictive behaviors, akin to drug addiction, through it’s association with pleasurable reinforcement as a reward (Benton, 2004)(Mintz, 1985). The historical shift in utilizing sugar as a preservative (Goody, 2013) directly led to the chocolate industry’s use of sugar as a stabilizing agent which also happened to increase sweetness aka. desirability, and thus “unintentionally” producing a method of engendering consumer addiction for chocolates at a early stage of industrialization (Brenner, 1999) (D’Antonio, 2006: 107) (Mintz, 1985). By keeping in context the link between sugar and addiction, the increase of sugar in chocolate opened new possibilities of advertising. Not only was chocolate now sweet, it also had been historically constructed as medicinal; it could now be produced in vast quantities previously unavailable until the industrial revolution (Brenner, 1999) (Coe & Coe, 2013). Chocolate could now be produced cheaply, containing adulterated products and sweeteners, masking the purity of the roasted cacao bean’s savory nature, and enabled new advertising strategies, informed by chocolate’s newly found socio-economic versatility (Stuckey, 2012) (Allen, 2010). These advertising campaigns have been able to pander to chocolate’s versatility in its ability to render multiple positive responses from consumers. F’s family utilization of chocolate as a restorative “cure-all” is the product of sugar’s addictive qualities, but their daily, weekly, monthly consumption of chocolate as a dietary necessity (only in the manner to which it produces a mental release of endorphins via the sugar and the Pavlovian association of chocolate with sugar) goes beyond this sweet binary to echo the mental and physical rejuvenation that religious ritual produces (Benton, 2004).
Mars’ Snickers campaign “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry, Snickers Satisfies” illustrates the multi-faceted approach that the Mars company takes in its marketing (Brenner, 1999). Mars’ advertisements embody the concept of satisfaction through one of it’s original marketing strategies to simply make a larger candy bar cost the same as the competition’s small one, through the incorporation of peanuts, caramel, and nougat (the primary ingredient of two of these is sugar)(Brenner, 1999). The campaign simultaneously engenders the concept that the Snickers’ bar will satisfy the physical manifestation of hunger and that the consumption of the candy will elevate the psyche back to normalcy (Benton, 2004). This engenders the ritualization of chocolate consumption as a divine facilitator of both inner (mental) and outer (physical hunger) peace; thus similarly paralleling the act of taking communion at Catholic Mass, this advertisement reifies a foodstuff to miraculously facilitate the divine restoration of the mortal self. F’s family reflects this theological embodiment of chocolate consumption as a canonized ritual, yet this advertisement does not alone explain why the three women are so captivated by chocolate’s allure.
Hershey’s Dove chocolate campaign (above) has a clear agenda engendering a gender stereotype of women being the primary consumers of chocolate (Robertson, 2009). F’s family represents this as the three women (F, FS, and FM) are the primary consumers of chocolate, while FD is the primary facilitator of consumption through his production of meals and snacks that prominently incorporate chocolate. This stereotype of women as chocoholics is rooted in historical contexts and has long been debunked as an “[addiction not] to chocolate but to sugar” (Robertson, 2009) (Coe & Coe, 2013: 260) (Benton, 2004). However, no matter the scientific or psychological realities of sugar addicts (Benton, 2004), this advertisement embodies chocolate’s reconstructed relationship with divinity by directly linking the consumption of Dove chocolate with the Mesoamerican concept of deification of oneself through the consumption of divine foodstuffs: particularly in their artistic conflation of the Maize god with cacao trees (Coe & Coe, 2013: 39), and through Mayan recipes mixing maize and cacao (Tokovinine, 2015). The Maya considered all objects to be of divine embodiment (Tokovinine, 2015), particularly those containing maize, which they believed was the physical embodiment of their physical selves as they were created from sacred Maize, stated in their sacred origin text the Popul Vuh, and were also divinely given the sacred crops of maize and cacao for consumption (Coe & Coe, 2013). By conflating the Maize god with a cacao pod the Mayans set a ritual precedent for the divine consumption of chocolate as enabling humanity to transcend into a divine state of epiphany. The Dove advertisement then conflates this ancient cultic practice with the more modern concept of women as the primary consumers of chocolate. Women, constructed in the advertisement as the downtrodden and oppressed gender (Bourdieu, 2001), can escape this existence through consuming chocolate and experiencing their own “moment” or existential epiphany outside of this oppression (Robertson, 2009). F’s family’s near unilaterally gender-stratified consumption of chocolate represents the religious epiphany of transcendental existence, which also reinforces the earlier discourse concerning chocolate as a parallel of Communion. Chocolate consumption now enables modern humanity to embody divinity.
Hershey furthers this gender binary of chocolate consumption through Dove’s “Only Human” advertisement campaign, which in chocolate consumption provides and escape from being female (Benton, 2004). The women are shown to be weak and “Only Human,” but Dove chocolate then provides a “real” comfort from the harsh realities of femininity (Benton, 2004). Going beyond this advertisement’s sexist engenderment, chocolate can now be associated with another of religion’s coveted abilities: the offerance of sanctuary. Chocolate makes the difficulties of human existence tolerable by offering brief sanctuaries, at the ‘moment’ of consumption, meta-physically separated from the human experience. The sanctuary that chocolate provides in these ‘moments’ parallels the sanctuary offered to praticioners of prayer, which provide a ‘moment’ with divinity meant to rejuvenate and make right the pain of a human existence. F’s family’s incorporation of chocolate into nearly all foodstuffs is now clearly representative of ritual prayers for protection from the evils and difficulties of a modern human, explicitly female, existence.
Other modes of ritual chocolate consumption are woven throughout the family’s daily lives: that of hygienic products. It has been well documented that cocoa butter, made from hydraulically pressing cacao liquor (Coe & Coe, 2013: 255), is highly effective in the treatment and prevention of various skin, and hair ailments. Placement of cocoa butter into hygienic products echoes both Baptism and the Catholic ritual of the Anointment of the Sick. Both of these religious rituals engage in a ritual purification of the body and soul. Chocolate can be religiously vindicated through the purification of the human existence, and divinely heal the physical manifestations of the human condition. Dissenters, who would disagree with this statement, are to be reminded of the Christian Science movement, whose belief in the healing power of prayer is thought to heal all physical ailments (thought to be sins’ physical manifestations), and scientific medical treatments are spurred as sinful disregard of God’s will (Norton, 1899). Thus a conflated argument to be made is that the consumption of chocolate is equal to prayer, regardless of the science behind cocoa butter’s ability to remedy topical ailments of the skin and hair. Even through dissent, contemporary chocolate consumption has reified itself as divine through F’s family’s hygienic self anointment with sacred cocoa butter.
Ritual can be identified easily through archaeological interpretation of material culture- that is to say, the artifacts by which rituals are carried out with. Chocolate manufacturing has built megalithic structures dedicated to the continual production of chocolate, such that entire communities sprung into existence to support its cultic fanatical production. Milton Hershey’s factory communes illustrate this quite succinctly (Brenner, 1999)(D’Antonio, 2006). Even the consumption of chocolate has ritual implements, such as: stylized porcline serveware, chocolatière, and the appropriated Mesoamerican molinillo (Martin, 2016). F’s family does not have all such ritual implements as modern technology’s updated versions of the chocolatière and molinillo (serving kettle and whisks), but they do have stylized ceramic ware for the sole consumption of chocolate, indicated by the imprinted logo of L.A. Burdick (a chocolatier company). F’s house has designated chocolate cabinets for the storage of preserved “instant” chocolate beverages, edible chocolates, and hygenic cocoa products; while this cabinet space is shared with similar items for drink, eating, and hygeine, the totality of chocolate’s combination with these other products merely increases the variety by which chocolate’s ritual artifacts are incorporated into daily life.
Chocolate’s transtitional state speaks to the originial liminal state by which the Mayans contextualized their existence around divinity. Chocolate has come full circle in the historical utilizations and perperonderances by which chocolate consumption has been stereotyped, redefined, and ritualized. Through the analysis of F and her family’s cultic ritual habits of chocolate, they are revealed to be the ultimate by-product of a centuries-long polemic that has created a new world religion focused on the ritualized production and consumption, based on an engendered, constructed faith that chocolate is divinely able to elevate the human condition out of the mire of oppression, through psychological and physical restoration of peace, harmony, happiness, and self-satisfaction.
Albritton, R. (2012). Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry. In Food and Culture: A Reader (3rd ed., pp. 342-352). S.l.: Routledge.
Allen, L. L. (2010). China and Chocolate: East Meets West. In Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers (pp. 7-39). New York: American Management Association.
Allen, L. L. (2010). Going the Distance: China’s 10L Chocolate Race. In Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers (pp. 201-223). New York: American Management Association.
Allen, L. L. (2010). One Country, Three Centuries. In Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers (pp. 1-6). New York: American Management Association.
Presilla, M. E. (2009). The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes (Revised ed.). Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Robertson, E. (2009). Chapter One: ‘A deep physical reason’: Gender, race, and the nation in chocolate consumption. In Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (pp. 18-63). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Robertson, E. (2009). Chapter Three: ‘There is no operation involved with cocoa that I didn’t do’: Women’s experiences of cocoa farming. In Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (pp. 91-131). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Robertson, E. (2009). Chapter Two: ‘The Romance of the Cocoa Bean’: Imperial and colonial histories. In Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (pp. 64-90). Manchester: Manchester University Press.
I wanted to open this blog post with a witty sentence introducing my topic, why the era of sexualizing women in advertisements needs to end, and googled ‘sex sells’ for inspiration. The second hit had the following description:
Here is the cold hard truth, “Sex Sells.” Hate it or love it, sex attracts the eye more than any other type of advertisement (Ovsyannykov).
In lieu of this, here is my introduction, albeit angrier and less witty than I had originally intended:
Here is the cold hard truth, we live in a patriarchal society: women currently earn $0.79 to every dollar made by men and it will be another century before gender equality is achieved in top management positions if we continue at the current pace (Bloomberg). Hate it or love it, barriers and obstacles to gender parity are rampant in society, one of the most pervasive being the presentation of women in advertisement as sexual and trivial beings. “Sex sells,” it attracts the eye, capturing the attention of audiences, but it is not the only means of effective advertising. In fact, for products or services that have nothing to do with sex, sexual advertisements can be less effective than non-sexual advertisements (Lynn).
The chocolate industry is plagued by marketing campaigns that marginalize women, depicting them as sexual objects unable to resist the temptation of chocolate. By portraying women in this light, these advertisements are helping to maintain gender stereotypes and harming the mental health of young girls. The chocolate industry, particularly as a non-sexual industry, has a moral obligation to move away from using gendered stereotypes in advertisements.
Chocolate Advertisements: A Gendered Portrayal
In “Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History,” Emma Robertson discusses the portrayal of women in the chocolate industry versus the reality of their position. She traces chocolate from the harvest of the cacao in Africa to production in factories to consumption, and offers that advertising “failed to represent the actual economic, political, and social conditions in which Rowntree and Cadbury products, and ultimately profits, were produced” (Robertson, 19). Women were fetishized as housewives and mothers, shown as irrational narcissistic consumers, and objective as “sexual objects to maintain male morale” (Robertson, 30). Prior to WWII, they were solely depicted in the workplace during wartime although they were responsible for the production of chocolate bars in factories during peace times.
For more examples of the sexualization of women in chocolate advertisements, check out this web page from Carla Martin’s “Bittersweet Notes: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.”
The Sexualization of Women: Dramatic Effects
By depicting women in such a sexualized way, the chocolate industry is subliminally enforcing the antiquated stereotype that women are objects. This bolsters the current societal inequities and provides supporting evidence to stereotypes. This has a couple noteworthy implications for the workplace: it may make people less likely to inherently trust and support the rise of women in managerial positions, and also can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Constantly bombarded by the idea that women are meant for the house not office, women can internalize this message and consequentially not try to rise the corporate ranks or stand up for themselves and demand an earned salary/position.
In 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a study that found that the sexualization of women in the media has negative effects on young girls who are exposed to it, effecting cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development (Zurbriggen). Research finds a strong linkage between sexualization and eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression, three of the most commonly diagnosed mental problems in girls and women (Zurbriggen). This means that the take away for young girls viewing the sexy chocolate ads described above is not the product advertised but the characteristics of the oftentimes female model.
Changing the Dialogue: Our Kit Kat Advertisement
In hopes of changing the focus of chocolate advertisements, we chose to recreate a Nestlé Kit-Kat advertisement from the “One-minute break” campaign created by Zoopa, an Italian agency in 2008. Inspired by the “One-Minute Sculptures” of Erwin Wurum, this ad campaign features various professionals in silly positions with a Kit Kat bar. Unlike the featured men who are shown in appropriate workplace clothing, the woman is shown in a revealing skirt with a high front slit even though skirt suits generally have a small slit in the back for the sole purpose of allowing for greater leg mobility when walking. While the painter is shown with brushes and a ladder, the doctor with a stethoscope, and the businessman with a laptop, the woman is shown solely with a rolling chair, an object that does not increase productivity whatsoever, particularly as standing desks become more and more popular in the workplace.
Our advertisement (below on the right; the original advertisement is below on the left) is empowering: we clothed our model in a pantsuit just like the other members of the campaign. The laptop she carries and the added tagline, “Two perfect presentations down, two to go. Have a break, you earned it”, not only stress her professionalism but also the role of Kit-Kats as an enjoyable midday energy-booster. With her head turned, the focus is on the Kit-Kat bar, not the model, with the red packaging standing out starkly against the light backdrop. These changes keep the main intended message from the original advertisement intact, “Have a break. Have a Kit Kat,” while dramatically improving the subliminal message – that women can be powerful agents in the workplace.
Moving Forward: A Moral Obligation
The portrayal of women in advertisements has not naturally followed nor kept pace with the changing social roles of women, and it is time chocolate companies, particularly the Big 5, transform their marketing practices. To encourage change, governments should follow the European Union, who in 2008 passed a resolution urging Member States to honor the ‘European Pact for Gender Equality’ by tackling marketing and advertising (Van Hellemont and Van den Bulck). Specifically, they called on Member States to ensure:
“by appropriate means that marketing and advertising guarantee respect for human dignity and integrity of the person, are neither directly nor indirectly discriminatory nor contain any incitement to hatred based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.”
Although enforcing this type of legislation can be difficult, it can create incentives for change. The resolution suggested Member States create public awards for companies and campaigns that create advertisements emphasizing gender equality. This incentivizes companies by providing them with the opportunity to gain free media attention across a large population. The legislation also starts a dialogue, and public pressure can be the strongest catalyst for change.
Chocolate consumption was feminized early and many advertisements initially targeted women because they were responsible for household decisions and thus had purchasing power (Robinson 20). Chocolate companies however also soon recognized the potential relationship between female sensuality and luxurious chocolate and started targeting men through feminine advertisements. Today, advertisements for chocolate have become increasingly more sexualized and we see an alarming trend with ads that promote gender stereotypes. Women in contemporary ads are often depicted as irrational or excessively aroused due to chocolate (Martin). As the analysis of the campaign below suggests, there is an urgent need for advertisements that empower female consumers.
The GoDiva Campaign
In 2004, Godiva launched an advertising campaign, GoDiva, aimed at promoting an indulgent lifestyle to women between 25 and 30 and (Cho). Godiva’s efforts to appeal to a new consumer base, however, were not particularly successful because the campaign exploited women rather than empowering them.
As seen in the advertisement above, which is part of the campaign, a scantly dressed woman is lying down, seductively gazing into the camera. She is clad in a sheer fabric that is seemingly falling off her shoulders. Her hair is tousled and she stares into the camera with desire. Interestingly, the Godiva chocolate truffle is sensually placed on the woman’s chest, bringing the viewer’s eyes to her cleavage. The woman’s right hand is placed on her chest while the left hand is sensually caressing the hair, further adding to her sultry look. All these attributes give the advertisement an erotic vibe, and could highlight that the woman has or is soon to engage in a sexually pleasurable act.
Moreover, the strange placement of the truffle seems to suggest that the truffle is not aimed for self-consumption, but rather to be consumed by someone else. Furthermore, her posture places her at the disposal of the implied chocolate consumer, reinforcing the notion that this woman is subordinate to her partner.
These ads were part of Godiva’s campaign and feature women who seductively gaze into the camera.
The tagline of Godiva’s campaign, “Every Woman is One Part (Go)Diva” is catchy, but in connection to photos of submissive women, it fails to empower prospective female consumers. The other ads in the campaign similarly feature white women with seductive styling and submissive body postures. Moreover, the models are portrayed in dimly lit rooms that feature chandeliers and ornamented wallpapers. These factors imply that Godiva is primarily for upscale white consumers, thus highlighting issues related to race and class.
Lastly, it seems problematic that Godiva chooses to highlight the word diva in the campaign. Although Merriam Webster’s definition of the word diva suggest that it is “a usually glamorous and successful female performer or personality,” the word also carries a negative connotation and is often used to describe someone who is arrogant and high maintenance. The interaction between the campaign’s tagline and photos submissive women thus seem particularly problematic.
An Alternative Ad
In response to Godiva’s campaign, I am proposing a campaign that effectively empowers women. As highlighted, a major issue in Godiva’s campaign, and chocolate advertisements in general, is that the women are portrayed as submissive tools intended to satisfy someone else’s sexual desire. My campaign addresses issues of female exploitation and seeks to empower prospective female consumers.
In the proposed ad, a young woman is portrayed in an office setting. She is exiting a meeting room with a confident smile on her face. In stark contrast to Godiva’s Diva-campaign she is not staring into the camera, and is thus not consumed by the male gaze. The woman in the proposed ad has a lot of agency, and seeks a moment of “sweet escape” after a successful day at work. In contrast to the original ad, she is portrayed as strong and independent, and thus the chocolate is intended for self-consumption. The new ad highlights that the chocolate can be associated with luxury and gratification, without blunt references to sex. Moreover, the woman in the ad is appropriately dressed and shows very little skin, to refrain from exploiting the female body.
Lastly, one major issue with Godiva’s campaign is that it failed to promote diversity, and my campaign will cast a diverse group of women of different ethnicities. Moreover, the proposed campaign aims to promote a healthy body ideal, similar to the woman in the proposed ad above.
I truly believe that the proposed campaign will appeal to female consumers who need a break after a busy day at work. The campaign is also likely empower women, and will be extended to include females in other work settings, thus reaching a broader audience. The working woman is relatable, and the campaign successfully pushes back on gender stereotypes and female sexualization in chocolate advertisements.
Martin, Carla D. “Race, ethnicity, gender, and class in chocolate advertisements”.” Harvard University. Cambridge, MA. 30 March. 2016. Lecture.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.
Godiva Appeals to Women with “Diva” Campaign. Digital Image. http://media260chocolate.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2014/03/03/godiva-appeals-to-women-with-diva-campaign/. Web. 9 March. 2016
The overt sexualization of women is pervasive in current chocolate advertising. This is likely an artifact of the portrayal of chocolate as sinful, which has been common in western culture since its introduction to the European market. Chocolate advertising is, and has been for a long time, problematic in many ways, but the sexism and clear sexual innuendo in its advertising seems both the most frequent abuse as well as the most curious. Chocolate is mostly an impulse purchase in the U.S. and Europe, and is most often purchased by women, so chocolate advertising, understandably, targets women (Martin, Lecture 2016). At the same time, however, the portrayal of women in chocolate ads is often incredibly sexist, and sexualizes them in a way that is expected of ads targeting a mostly male audience.
I have selected three chocolate advertisements that use this form of marketing. The first is a frame from an advertisement for a Cadbury flake bar, in which the viewer intrudes on a young woman eating a Cadbury chocolate flake bar in her bathtub, and presumably having an orgasm. Really, the imagery is so apparent that we don’t actually have to presume that much, if at all. It is understandable that a company would want to advertise a product to women as capable of giving them orgasms, at least on the level of ‘sex sells,’ yet ads like this portray the women as obsessive and sex-crazed, at best, and objects akin to a piece of chocolate at worst. Emma Roberts points out in her book that there is a clear link in advertising between women and sex, and that such advertisements “perpetuate western sexist and racist ideologies under a veneer of pleasurable consumption” (Robertson 2009), yet this is often used to sell products to men. In fact, advertisement research on the topic has shown that women in general respond more negatively to sexual advertisements than men (Dahl, Sengupta, & Vohs 2008). Why would ads for women cross the line from selling sex to women, to selling sex to men and falling into sexist stereotypes?
Below are two more ads that fall into the category of sexualization in a way that targets women and is at the same time offensive to them. In the advertisement of Filthy chocolate, the sinfulness and obsessiveness that often ties women and chocolate together is explicitly written in the text of the advertisement. Further, we can see the woman, clothed in chocolate, in a state of what seems to be intense pleasure, but with her body contorted in an extremely unrealistic way, and which portrays sexuality but not ‘properness.’ That is, it buys into a typical representation of women for male audiences, that aims to portray them as sexual objects, but with some degree of resistance to that sexuality, because are not intended to embrace their sexuality as openly as men can. In the advertisement by dove, it is hard to discern any traceable attempt to appeal to women, other than the fact that a woman is eating the chocolate. The woman holds her mouth and consumes the chocolate in an incredibly sexual way, but is disembodied, without any character, and shows no sign of enjoyment of the action, which the other ads, though problematic, at least are able to achieve. This ad strikes me as completely nonsensical, as it only sexualizes the woman but fails to deliver any convincing evidence that the chocolate will maker her happy.
In our advertisements, my group partner and I decided recreated these advertisements with men eating chocolate in the absurd way that women are portrayed as eating chocolate in many of these ads. It is intended to point out the completely flawed thinking that goes into ads that target women at the same time as stereotyping and objectifying them. First, and most apparently, nobody actually eats chocolate the way that these women are portrayed as eating chocolate. It is actually accepted in the media as not being absurd because people are used to this overt sexualization of women, but our ad points out how absurd it is by showing people very different from incredibly attractive, likely airbrushed, women eating chocolate in this manner. These ads include an attempt to portray the contorted, sexual-yet-shy body language of the ‘Filthy’ chocolate ad, to the apparent orgasm that eating chocolate can give a person. In the context of young men doing these things instead of young women, they seem ridiculous.
“As Britain’s Sexiest Chocolate Ad Hits 40 … It’s Joss – Only the Sultriest, Funkiest Flake Girl.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.
Bui, Quang. Filthy Chocolate Ad Campaign. Digital image. 22 May 2011. Web.
Dahl, D., Sengupta, J., & Vohs, K. (2008). Sex In Advertising: Gender Differences And the Role of Relationship Commitment. Journal of Consumer Research, 215-231.
Mauss, Marcel, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: Norton, 1967. Print.
Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 9: Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in Chocolate Advertisements.” Aframer 119x. CGIS, Cambridge. 30 Mar. 2016. Lecture.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. 2010. 1-131. Print.
Historically, chocolate has been considered an aphrodisiac, associated with love and sex, and perceived in highly gendered ways, with evidence of this in the Aztec culture and Victorian Era, for example (Martin). Modern advertising narratives, such as the Cadbury Flake ad featuring a woman in a bath, continue these traditional themes associated with chocolate by selling the candy with highly sexualized, erotic images and messages. Chocolate advertisers frequently depict the experience of consuming chocolate as “identical to the pleasure of sex or redeemable for the pleasure of sex” (Anderson). I will examine the Dove ad for their Cranberry Almond Dark Chocolate bar, pictured to the right, and consider how the image, and other chocolate ads, create a harmful narrative around chocolate and female sexuality. Too often, they promote a notion of women as weak objects, who, once exposed to the influence of chocolate, which serves as an alternative to men, are completely powerless.
The Dove ad is not true to the actual product: the cranberry almond bar is not a substitute for sex and it will not incapacitate the woman by providing her with irresistible physical satisfaction. By obscuring the reality of the product and depicting women as easily, irrationally entranced by chocolate, and by extension, as helpless, I contend that ads like this Dove ad are promoting an injurious characterization of women as objects without agency, and without interests beyond satisfying their own pleasure. It is important to consider the effects of these messages on female self-perception, and work to create ads that instead more accurately celebrate chocolate as a tasty sweet, rather than a “sexual surrogate” (Kawash), and women as real people with depth and personality.
Samira Kawash, author of Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, notes the “overt sexuality” of the Dove ad, which she describes as featuring a “lithe woman caressed by brown silk, writhing in pleasure” (Kawash). Upon first glance, the viewer notices a woman wrapped up in a silky brown material with an expression of pure bliss. Her eyes are closed, her features are soft, and her expression is one of peaceful ecstasy. She is certainly in rapture, but her face has been molded in a way so as to not create a dramatic appearance, so she does not appear too powerful. The ad focuses on the comprehensive sum of the different elements of the image: the woman’s euphoric expression, the silky folds of the fabric, the soft lighting, and the suggestive overlaying words.
Noticeably, the whole advertisement is tinted brown and it is difficult to discern sharp boundaries between the woman’s face, her hair, and the silky cloth that is wrapped around her. Dove has carefully crafted and edited the image so as to make the woman in bed resemble creamy chocolate in hue and texture. It is if chocolate is literally taking over the woman because of its overpowering effect on her. She is a remarkably flat figure and resembles a painted face, rather than an individual with a personality, sense of self, and means of influence.
The words at the bottom of the advertisement further reinforce the overt sexual connotations of the image and characterize the woman as easily seduced and without agency: “Now it can last longer than you can resist. Unwrap. Indulge. Repeat.”
My re-designed ad celebrates women as strong, dynamic beings, and markets Dove chocolate for what it is — a sweet. The new ad focuses on the women’s actions, namely, their decision to go for a bike ride together, rather than their sexual satisfaction. It shows that women are strong and in control; they enjoy adventures, represented through biking, and sweets, presumably chocolate, and will not be manipulated or lulled into an euphoric slumber by a mere candy. Furthermore, I incorporated three women into the advertisement to suggest the social nature of chocolate as a food to be shared among friends, rather than an erotic object or substitute for sex that is enjoyed alone in one’s bed, as the initial advertisement suggests with the shrouded woman. The new slogan, “Now life can be full of adventures and sweets,” promotes chocolate as a delicious addition to an active life, rather than an instrument to prod female sexuality.
Considering that most chocolate, and certainly the “My Dove, My Moment” ad, is targeted at women, the implicit messages of female degradation have a negative effect on self-perception. The re-designed ad takes the opportunity to reach so many female consumers to convey a positive, uplifting message by featuring women who are engaged with the world around them and with one another. Dove chocolate will provide women with “sweet” support in their active lives.
Anderson, L.V. “Cuckoo for Chocolate.” Slate Magazine. Slate.com, 13 Feb 2012. Web.