Valentine’s Day has transitioned from an age-old tradition to becoming a globally celebrated phenomenon that transcends the barriers of language, culture, and religion. On February 14th of every year people come together to celebrate the one(s) that they love through passionate displays of affection, gift-giving, meals, and most importantly: chocolate. Particularly in the United States, chocolate has come to define the central meaning of Valentine’s Day with Americans spending billions on the commodity annually. Through exploring the origins of the holiday, chocolate’s role in its development, and the impact of American consumerism an opportunity is presented to better understand a holiday that so many hold dear.
While the exact origins of Valentine’s Day is still a topic of discussion among scholars, the widely accepted historical accounts of it are noteworthy in understanding the thematic development of the holiday. One origin story dates back to pagan Rome and the two gods within Roman mythology: Lupercus, who protected lambs from wolves, and Juno, who looked over wives. Through a combination of the roles of the two deities, Romans paired men and women together for marriage. After Constantine converted to Christianity and legalized it, the church named the holiday after a bishop who was said to act as a matchmaker between young Christians. Similarly, another origin story traced back to Chaucer’s time notes the poet’s belief that on February 14th, “every foul cometh ther to choose his mate” (Dyk). As such, Valentine’s Day emerged as a distinctively European, highly gendered, and heteronormative holiday with consumerist undertones. By the early 1600s, chocolate became a sweeping sensation across Europe as began to come in from the New World. Chocolate houses began to spring up across the continent and served as social gathering places and chocolate recipes became widely popular due to chocolate’s seemingly aphrodisiac qualities. Industrial pioneers such as Richard Cadbury began to make chocolate an even more accessible commodity, developing nicely packaged “eating chocolates” that came to be the standard. Despite its European origins, the power of advertising and a growing consumer culture brought it to the forefront of American society.
The commercialization of Valentine’s Day in the United States turned it from a historical ritual that had been widely forgotten to popular cultural event that anyone could be part of. Advertising companies leveraged media outlets to rave about the excitement of the holiday as a time for love, fun, and gift-giving. The word “valentine” transitioned from only meaning a person to also encompassing the gifts that people gave to each other on the holiday. Soon, the reconceptualization and commodification of Valentine’s Day transformed it into a staple of American life with the likes of Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter.
Today, Valentine’s Day continues to be a holiday marked by spending that adds fuel to the economy. In 2020, Americans spent over $27.4 billion on Valentine’s Day, up from $20.7 billion spent in 2019 according to the National Retail Foundation. On average, Americans spent $196.31 individually on Valentine’s gifts, up from last year’s record of $161.96. Chocolate and candy account for a strong proportion of spending on the holiday, having reached a sum of over $1.7 billion in 2016. As shown, people see chocolate and Valentine’s Day as inseparable identities and are willing to pay to ensure that those that they care about are able to indulge in the special treat.
Valentine’s Day continues to be a season of coming together and expressing the love we have for those dearest to us in life, whether it be our partners, friends, or families. As it has progressed through the centuries, so has the influences that have shaped it. Chocolate clings to the heart and soul of the holiday and continues to do so. As long as there is chocolate on earth and people are willing to spend on it, Valentine’s Day will continue to thrive and the popularity of chocolate along with it.
Van Dyk, Natalie. “The Reconceptualization of Valentine’s Day in the United States: Valentine’s Day as a Phenomenon of Popular Culture.” Bridges: An Undergraduate Journal of Contemporary Connections 1.1 (2013): 4.
“Flowers mean I’m sorry and chocolate means I love you.” These are the wise words of Lauren Conrad, the star of The Hills, a Los Angeles-based television show that aired in 2006. This proverb is not unique to reality TV. People have shared Lauren’s opinion for centuries; from ancient Mesoamerican civilizations to 16th century Europe to modern westernized societies, chocolate has remained a symbol of and an ingredient for romantic love. The endurance of the relationship between chocolate and love is striking, making it quite possibly the only thing that Mesoamerica and MTV have in common. Throughout history, raw and processed cacao has been imbued with cultural, medicinal, and spiritual significance regarding sexual and romantic success. As a result, chocolate is believed to not only “mean” love, but to make love.
The ancient Mayans are thought to be the first civilization to cultivate cacao, and thus the first people to endow it with sexual and romantic significance (Martin). However, later civilizations, such as the Mixtecs and the Aztecs, retained cacao as a prominent religious and cultural symbol. Mesoamerican societies always incorporated chocolate into their marriage ceremonies (Coe 97). A bride often served her groom a chocolate drink during the wedding ceremony to consecrate their marriage (Martin). The Codex Zouche-Nutall, a pre-Columbian manuscript from the Mixtec civilization, illustrates this custom in its depiction of the royal marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent.
Raw cacao seeds were also part of the ceremony. Women’s dowries often consisted of cacao beans, which doubled as a form of currency in Mesoamerican economies (Martin). In some societies, the bride and groom exchanged cacao beans with the words “These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband [or wife]” (Coe 61). In this custom, cacao plays the same role as rings in modern marriages in that it symbolized and sanctified a romantic commitment.
16th Century Europe
Chocolate arrived in Europe in the 16th century via the Spanish courts, and its romantic and sexual connotations also survived the journey across the Atlantic. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador who produced a detailed written account of the Mexican conquest, claimed Aztec Emperor Motecuhzoma drank cacao to have “success with women” (Coe 96). The Spanish perpetuated this faith in cacao’s sexual and romantic benefits, believing that its consumption would increase the probability of both conception and love (Martin). Chocolate was also considered a powerful aphrodisiac, and recommended by physicians as a remedy for a weak “venereal appetite” (Coe 122).
Modern Westernized Societies
While modern medicine has progressed far beyond that of 16th century Europe, chocolate has retained its prescribed aphrodisiacal properties. In Dr. Nicholas Perricone’s list of the “Top 10 Sex-Boosting Foods”, published by CBS News, chocolate lands at number six. In the justification for this ranking, CBS cites a study by “The Journal of Sexual Medicine” that found a positive correlation between daily chocolate consumption and sexual activity.
In case the double medical endorsement wasn’t enough to solidify the connection between chocolate and sex, CBS also includes a photo of a naked woman coating herself in liquid chocolate. This picture is just one example of the sexual presentation of chocolate in modern media. A provocative advertisement for 1848 Chocolate incorporates very similar imagery. The video involves a woman bathing in liquid chocolate, cacao pods, and cocoa powder, with sound effects that enhance the seductive tone and sexual connotations of the scene.
The chocolate industry wholeheartedly embraces the idea that “sex sells.” Sex plays a role not only in cinematic advertising, but in chocolate’s linguistic presentation as well.
The company Chuao Chocolatier describes its Spicy Maya bar as a blend of “seductive cinnamon, pasilla chile and warming cayenne bedded in dark chocolate.” Chuao’s advertising copywriters don’t stop there: the Spicy Maya bar is “[a] warm cinnamon embrace, velvety dark chocolate, and an infusion of cayenne and pasilla chile. With just enough heat to melt your heart, it’s a truly delicious way to brighten up your day. Spicy maya is the perfect mix of sweet and seductive.” The numerous references to heat are subtle sensual suggestions, whereas “bedded,” “embrace,” and the repetition of “seductive” are blatantly sexual.
Sex sells, but so does romance. In Cocoa, Kristy Leissle acknowledges that chocolate companies “steer consumer desire for chocolate in certain directions,” and in many cases that direction is love (Leissle 9). Cadbury’s 2020 Valentine’s Day advertisement literally embodies the idea of chocolate leading to love. The video depicts a man guiding his impatient female partner through the woods. Her irritation evaporates when they end up in a clearing of fireflies and he gives her his heart — or at least the heart-shaped centerpiece of the Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk Heart Pop chocolate bar (a Valentine’s Day Special Edition!). This interaction reflects Leissle’s idea that manufacturers promote chocolate not only as the path to romantic love, but as a “surrogate for romantic love” itself (Leissle 9). At the end of the video, Cadbury asks its audience, “How far will you go for love?” The answer is the nearest chocolate aisle.
Just as sex and romance promote chocolate in advertisements, chocolate promotes sex and romance in cinema. According to TV Tropes, a website devoted to explaining common cinematic themes and motifs, chocolate appears in three primary sexual and romantic contexts: in the progressing of a relationship, often in the form of a gift during courtship, anniversaries, or holidays; in the mending of a relationship, offered in exchange for forgiveness; in the initiation of intimacy, consumed before characters are sexually intimate. This latter trend has a subtle presence in the Cadbury ad: when the man presents the woman with chocolate, the music changes from instrumental to lyrical, starting with the words “Kiss me.” Chocolate plays a critical role in the promotion, progression, and preservation of sexual and romantic relationships in the media.
While TV Tropes and the Cadbury ad focus on chocolate facilitating romance between two people, it’s possible that chocolate can create love regardless of whether its consumer has a significant other. Along with its abundance of sexual suggestions, Chuao Chocolatier promises that the Spicy Maya bar will “melt your heart” and “brighten up your day.” There is some data to back up these claims: “[d]ark chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a chemical believed to produce the feeling of being in love” (CBS News). While the connection between chocolate and love has typically been symbolic, it may also be scientific.
There is a reason chocolate is so strongly associated with Valentine’s Day, a holiday celebrating romantic love. Throughout history, chocolate has been credited with sexual and romantic benefits. Chocolate has been used to consecrate Mesoamerican marriages, attract romantic partners, improve sexual performance, and even increase the chance of pregnancy. Today, it is a means to flirt, to court, to celebrate, to seduce, to apologize, to appease. Chocolate is more than just an aphrodisiac: it is a modern-day love potion. Chocolate might be a “surrogate for romantic love,” but in many ways it is also an ingredient. We give chocolate the power not only to “mean” love, but to make love.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. John Wiley & Sons, 2018.
Martin, Carla. “Introduction.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 29 Jan. 2020, Harvard University, Cambridge. Class Lecture.
—. “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods’.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 5 Feb. 2020, Harvard University, Cambridge. Class Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, 1986.
A Contextual History: The Ancient Origins of Chocolate as an Aphrodisiac
In class, we discussed the relationship between Valentine’s Day and chocolate. Because it is a Victorian-created holiday that can seem to a skeptic more of a consumerist ploy than a celebration of love, one may argue that the importance placed upon Valentine’s Day is in our culture is inflated. Sure, maybe Valentine’s Day is just a (highly-gendered and heteronormative) convention, but nobody can deny the centrality of chocolate in its celebration. Many foods are said to have aphrodisiac qualities, but chocolate is amongst the most renowned. The passion elicited from its indulgence dates back centuries. The Maya considered cacao sacred, encouraging its consumption during highly emotional or spiritual events like marriage and fertility rituals as well as death rites. In more transgressive accounts, Aztec emperor Montezuma consumed a gluttonous amount of chocolate each day to boost his sexual stamina. This essay serves to trace the entwinement of chocolate, sex, and passionate indulgences through the contemporary state of the cacao-chocolate industry while situating it in its appropriate historical context.
The ephemeral nature of cacao consumption’s association with aphrodisiac qualities divulges a corollary truth between ancient wisdom and modern science. While historically chocolate has been taken advantage of in the name of its spiritual effects, science, commerce, and even art contemporarily reveal there is a passion to indulgence. Whether it is eating chocolate or having sex, fleeting benevolence. Consistent consumption of both nurtures an honest, transgressive air of ambitious pursuit that allows one to stay in tune their desires, promoting health, general well-being, and growth. If demonstrated truthfully, this post suggests indulgence should not be understood merely as a momentary transgression, but rather an honest, consistent truth that leads to health and progress.
2. Contemporary State of the Cacao-Chocolate Industry: Modern Marketing and Cognitive Science
Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate: How We Fell In Love With Caffeine
Melanie King’s book Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate: How We Fell In Love With Caffeine explores the question of how contemporary culture and modern society became enamored with tea, coffee, and chocolate. Broadly, she argues it has to do with their stimulative effects on dopamine. Specifically, King posits that drinking chocolate products benefits the consumers “sex life and physical appearance,” a wisdom that can be traced back through history. The stimulation a consumer achieves increases their propensity to chace the transgressive desires weighing on their heart, promoting longevity and renewal.
Mood State Effects of Chocolate
Putting some science to Melanie King’s argument for ancient wisdom in the positive benefits of cacao consumption on our mood, the University of New South Wales’ School of Psychiatry conducted an academic review on the association of chocolate consumption with enjoyment and pleasure. Historically, dating back to the Ancient Mesoamerican origins of cacao consumption, chocolate indulgence provokes a variety of mental, physical, and spiritual effects that bestow “stimulant, relaxant, euphoriant, aphrodisiac, tonic, and antidepressant” properties. Specifically, the UNSW research team focused on the mood altering traits of chocolate. Investigating chocolate’s psychoactive positionings, the team concluded: “chocolate can provide its own hedonistic reward by satisfying cravings but, when consumed as a comfort eating or emotional eating strategy, is more likely to be associated with prolongation rather than cessation of a dysphoric mood.” Thus, their research provides implications about the ephemeral, fleeting benefits derived from one’s chocolate indulgence. This is not to say that chocolate consumption is malevolent or harmful, but rather that the endurance of its advantageous emotional effects requires habitual consistency.
Chocolate Consumption and Women’s Sexual Function
Further, Psychology Today’s article “Chocolate Consumption and Women’s Sexual Function” claims, “Aztec emperor Montezuma is reputed to have used chocolate in a manner akin to today’s Viagra pill.” Nowadays, the aphrodisiac link between sex and chocolate is most visible around Valentine’s Day. Dr. Andrea Salonia, an Italian physician, piloted a research project that measured chocolate consumption against female sexual function and depression. It was found that chocolate consumption increases the female propensity to achieve sexual satisfaction, positing a scientific legitimacy in the human inclination to sin and sin again consequently. The research team also found a correlation between age and scores on the Female Sexual Function Index. Younger women who consumed chocolate daily scored much higher, suggesting maturity impacts the desire to indulge transgressively.
Sex, Chocolate, and Disability
The cultural perception that there is a transgressive nature to sex and chocolate consumption has influenced commerce, marketing, and media in various controversial ways. In 2016, Mars-brand Maltesers ran a series of ads that featured disabled people discussing embarrassing intimacies while opening up over chocolate. The first ad featured a wheelchaired woman with cerebral palsy symbolically spilling a bag of Maltesers on the table as she describes an awkward sexual experience with her new boyfriend, implying her spastic disease caused a diuretic explosion during sex. The risky ad provoked a highly controversial reception, polarizing audiences into camps of insensitivity and effervescence. Maltesers doubled-down, claiming lightheartedness and sense of humor are necessary forces of benevolence in a world of degradation, shame, and censorship. More importantly, these ads provoked public conversation about disability and suggested one ought to be optimistic about what defines their personhood.
Much of debate surround Maltesers’ ads were concerned with “sensitivity and authenticity,” triggering empathetic ideas about vulnerability outside of oneself. Remaining optimistic in ethos, a company representative stated, “Maltesers positions itself as a lighter way to enjoy chocolate and its ads encourage people to look on the light side of life. In three previous animated spots, comedians … relay awkward or embarrassing situations they’ve encountered, such as walking around a shop without realising you still have your umbrella up.”
Putting yourself in the shoes of the disabled, one must consider their perception of pity at odds with true equity; yet, the radical transparency of the Maltesers ads surely realized an air of bravery through creativity that encourages the disabled to exit their defensive comfort zones. Further, Mars’ 2016 advertisements added visibility to the disabled by expanding their personal liberties through the proliferation of opportunities for employment and exposure. There is also an argument to be made about diversity. Rather than tokenism, a representative of Mars claimed, “we got better ideas by not just thinking about the white, middle-class, able-bodied family with two kids. Using a different lens has been a game changer for our creativity.”
3. Personal Analysis and Critique: Healthy Indulgences and Fleeting Flits
Harvard Medical School published an article about the health benefits derived from unorthodox sources, such as chocolate and sex. Typically considered a devious indulgence, the team wrote: “A steady stream of studies has won chocolate cardiovascular laurels by showing that it improves blood flow through arteries that supply the heart and the brain.” Further, in 2008, researchers at Harvard found that “two weeks of enhanced chocolate intake quickened blood flow through the middle cerebral artery.” Additionally, Italian researchers found a feeble correlation between increased dark chocolate and reduced inflammation marked by the resultant low levels of C-reactive proteins. However, this comes with a major caveat: the health benefits of one’s chocolate indulgence are best derived from the organic, raw, unprocessed type. Added sugars and other excessive processes only complicate the body’s ability to receive cacao’s naturally fleeting benefits. As it concerns sex, the article called it obvious that “sexual arousal and orgasm is a source of great pleasure and a sense of well-being,” noting that, “even after the immediate glow fades, there may be residual health benefits.” While there are rare cases of sex causing heart attacks particularly in men, the effects of sexual activity regardless of gender are found to be overwhelmingly ameliorating. These benefits range from reducing the intensity of headaches and stress to the general wellness of cardiovascular and immune systems. When you put the two together, the consumption of raw chocolate and sex, there is a benevolent implication for overall health. But, it is important to tune into the fleeting nature of these benefits; to achieve a healthy balance, consistency is key.
Love and Chocolate
Love, ideally, is passionate, consistent, and true. Due to legends involving Montezuma, Don Juan, and even Casanova himself, chocolate and love have been mythically inseparable for centuries. The presupposition is that chocolate inspires passion. Whether in terms of sex, love, or both, it has been found that chocolate contains aphrodisiac powers of mimicry that can illude the passionate feelings of being in love. Janet Vine of Aphrodite Chocolates reported that “chocolate contains substances called phenylethylamine and seratonin, both of which are mood lifting agents found naturally in the human brain. They are released into the nervous system by the brain when we are happy and when we are experiencing feelings of love, passion or lust. This causes rapid mood change, a rise in blood pressure and increasing heart rate, inducing those feelings of well being, bordering on euphoria usually associated with being in love.” When consumed, chocolate releases these agents into the system and boosts a certain euphoric stamina that earns its reputation as an aphrodisiac instigator of passionate action.
Growing The Ultimate Aphrodisiac: Chocolate
Love, to me, is also something you must cultivate and actively work toward. The Grow Network video “Growing The Ultimate Aphrodisiac: Chocolate” above discusses the modern cultivation of Theobroma cacao trees. While it is imperative the leaves stay moist, they don’t retain all the water. It is a tropical plant that, in nature, grow as an understory, shaded by other trees so they don’t get the full brunt of tropical sun. Today, they can be grown in personal backyards or greenhouses, ideally temperature-controlled around 60 degrees. They start from seeds, but reach 5 or 6 feet in about three years when grown in rich organic soil. Once mature, pruning begins; they flower and fruit all year long.
Artistically too, modern culture connects the indulgence of chocolate and self-permitted growth. In 2007, YouTuber Tay Zonday went viral with his song “Chocolate Rain.”
Culturally, it was received as a funny video, but deserves to be recognized for its profound social commentary. Chocolate rain is a metaphor for the tears of African Americans operating in a system of racism. In a way that tugs at the heartstrings, Tay Zonday sings of the pain caused by institutional lies and deceit. He notes the inescapability of being wronged, for instance, when he sings “the bell curve blames the baby’s DNA,” referencing Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, which argues for the innate intellectual superiority of white men. It is again an interesting dichotomy between chocolate skin and tears of water. The emotional act of crying, expressing vulnerability, allows renewal upon a stained existence of unjustified inferiority. Crying, too, can be a passionate indulgence–a letting go.
Like Water for Chocolate
In other artistic representation of passion and chocolate, it is imperative to reference Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, which is one of my favorite all time works of literature. Symbolically, the title itself poses water’s purity against chocolate’s mercy; water is eternal like love, while mercy is fleeting like lust:
“it seemed Pedro’s rage dominated the thoughts and actions of everyone in the house. Tita was literally ‘like water for chocolate’—she was on the verge of boiling over.”
The real passion in Like Water for Chocolate exists between Pedro and Tita, star-crossed forbidden lovers. Esquivel’s style of prose, magical realism, portrays the otherworldliness of true love; it is a nature that defies reality and works in an irrational way. The quote above speaks to Tita’s divine feminity, and her arousal, showing her readiness to transgress and receive Pedro’s divine masculinity–she ultimately runs toward him. The novel positions true love as a life-giving force, requiring a nurturing attitude toward spiritual honesty, which brings happiness to pain. The story shows the ways in which truth, to oneself, is freedom. It is an interesting act of balancing that operates over the twelve months of the book, revealing true love, water, is capable to remedy intermittent affairs and external romance, chocolate. It took a long time for Pedro and Tita to actively run toward the cultivation of a serious relationship. In the final scenes of the book, they let go of their fearful resistance:
“Little by little her vision began to brighten until the tunnel again appeared before her eyes. There at its entrance was the luminous figure of Pedro waiting for her. Tita did not hesitate. She let herself go to the encounter, and they wrapped each other in a long embrace; again experiencing an amorous climax, they left together for the lost Eden. Never again would they be apart.”
Thus, true love is proven an enduring force, but it requires the crossing of boundaries and ultimate indulgence in true passion. Water’s solvent powers allow the indulgence of soluble chocolate to make for a greater drink, which, as we’ve learned in class, produces “stimulant, relaxant, euphoriant, aphrodisiac, tonic, and antidepressant” effects that renew the soul.
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.
On Sunday, May 1st 2016 I interviewed a woman by the name of Martina about her memories of, experiences with, preferences for, and decisions regarding chocolate. I didn’t ask very many questions, but we spoke for a little over an hour as she provided rich descriptions and recollections in her answers. Over the course of the interview it became apparent that Martina has an almost uniformly positive mental association with chocolate. This is a particularly strong association as she engages with chocolate on a daily basis. Indeed, it is this powerful link of chocolate to pleasure and happiness for Martina that had prevented or at least dissuaded her from considering any negative aspects of chocolate production and trade.
When asked about her first chocolate-related memory, Martina spoke about the chocolate egg that she received on Easter when she was very young.
“When I was about 6 or so I got this enormous chocolate egg from the Easter bunny. It must have been about 6 by 3 inches. It was this beautiful egg that had coconut cream on the inside, chocolate enrobing the coconut, and then my name written in cursive on the outside of the egg. I wanted to eat it right away, but I also wanted to look at it because it had my name and was so beautiful. So I ended up setting it aside and went with my family to the UU church. When we returned, my dog had eaten it. I was heartbroken. But it is still this wonderful memory of having this beautiful chocolate creation that was mine.”
Martina also commented on her favorite treats at the time and the sweets on which she would spend her allowance money, showing that she valued chocolate highly at an early age.
“I always loved chocolate. I would always spend allowance money on food, especially chocolate. And it was so foreign to me that best friend growing up didn’t like it! I still don’t understand it… Anyway, I remember often spending my money on Mallow Cups. They looked like Reese’s peanut butter cups but with marshmallow instead of peanut butter inside. I don’t remember if there were jokes or tokens on the cardboard cards under the mallow cups, but there was also some sort of additional incentive to buying them. I remember that kids collected them. When I was older and had more allowance money, I would go spend all of it on English Toffee at John Wanamaker’s department store – I think I was able to purchase a quarter pound or so. That toffee with milk chocolate and almonds on outside – so good.”
Mallow Cups – from Mallow Cups website
English Toffee – from food.com
Some other memories that Martina readily recalls revolve around chocolate in different forms:
“I really didn’t have a preference when it came to chocolate – I loved eating it any which way. One of the first things I learned how to cook was a batch of chocolate meringues – delicious. I also really liked chocolate ice cream. I would always love going over to my friend Samantha’s house because her father worked for Breyers and they always had great chocolate ice cream. But one of my most memorable childhood experiences was eating a 10 gallon container of chocolate, chocolate chip ice cream with my four brothers. My dad had been driving behind an ice cream truck on his way back from work, when the tub of ice cream fell off. This was before they had fancy ice cream flavors in grocery stores, so this was some sort of specialty flavor that you could only get in ice cream parlors.”
From these memories it is clear that throughout Martina’s childhood she developed an extremely strong relationship with chocolate and still has these very fond recollections of her experience with friends, family, and chocolate. As she put it: “thinking about it now, it seems like most of my favorite memories and stories deal with chocolate.” This observation is telling, as Martina has formed strong positive associations with chocolate due to her enjoyable memories with the good.
Martina’s fond experiences with chocolate are not only in the past, in fact they happen on a daily basis. When I asked Martina when she had last consumed chocolate and about how regularly she consumes it, she responded “about an hour ago” and “I would say that in a month, there is only a day or two that I go without eating chocolate.”
When I gave an involuntary “wow” in surprise, Martina responded:
“I know it sounds excessive, but I normally eat chocolate in moderation. I am able to do so because I find a small amount so satisfying. I really like that about chocolate. But if I am going to indulge in something that I know is not great for me, it is likely going to be a chocolate dessert. When I go to a dinner or some sort of social gathering, people often expect me to bring a chocolate dessert because they know how much I like it.”
Martina said that the chocolate that she consumes now is different from the types of chocolate that she consumed as a kid. She doesn’t like candy bars and now prefers “chocolate in more of a darker and purer form.” These “darker and purer” chocolates that she consumes on a daily basis are either Dove’s Silky Smooth Promises or Hershey’s Bliss (images shown below). When I asked why she came to like these chocolates and if she had seen them advertised she responded that she really liked the smoothness and taste of the chocolates, but really wasn’t exposed to much chocolate advertising at all.
Hershey individually-wrapped dark chocolate – from hershey.com
Dove individually-wrapped dark chocolate – from dove.com
Perhaps ironically, not being exposed to chocolate advertising could actually be beneficial to Martina’s positive image of chocolate. This is because she is not encountering the overtly sexualized language and imagery that is often used to sell chocolate products. This link between chocolate and sex was especially pushed in advertisements for luxury chocolates (Robertson, 2009). This tactic was most popular during the first three-fourths of the twentieth century, but it remains in use to this day (Robertson, 2009).
In addition to liking the flavor of these dark chocolates, Martina also states that she enjoys the health benefits that they provide: “I know that dark chocolate is good for me, so it is sorta like a health food. I mean that in terms of eating a couple pieces of dark chocolate every day. Not a big slice of chocolate cake with ice cream.”
This association that Martina makes between “moderate” chocolate consumption and good health is quite common. Yet, claims of chocolate’s health food properties are mostly misleading, if not inaccurate. Unprocessed cocoa powder does contain flavanol compounds that have been shown to have beneficial antioxidant and cardiovascular benefits (Fisher and Hollenberg, 2005). However, most chocolate undergoes extensive processing and does not retain these health benefits (Hollenberg and Fisher, 2007). Dutch processing, which treats cocoa with alkali to neutralize its acidity, is one process that robs cocoa of many of its beneficial flavanols (“Heart-Health”, 2012).
But even then, the health benefits derived from consuming flavanol-rich chocolate are likely exaggerated as well. Dr. Norman Hollenberg, a radiologist at Harvard Medical School and Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, greatly exaggerates the amount of cocoa consumed by the Kuna, an indigenous population of Panama. He attributes their good vascular health to drinking “at least 5 cups of cocoa with extraordinarily high flavanol-content each day” and drinking this almost exclusively (Hollenberg and Fisher, 2007). In fact, anthropologists have not found cocoa beverage consumption to be this extensive or this exclusive. The Kuna consume many different types of drinks and have a multitude of different commercial beverages available to them (Howe, 2012). Additionally, the claim that the coastal Kuna exclusively consume flavanol-rich chocolate is likely inaccurate. The availability of commercially-produced chocolate and its use in the preparation of chocolate drinks means that the amount of flavanol consumption is less than what Hollenberg makes it out to be (Howe, 2012). Thus, it is unlikely that their excellent vascular health is due to massive, exclusive consumption of favanol-rich chocolate.
Thus, Martina is enjoying chocolate on a daily basis, and believing that the chocolate that she is eating is healthy for her. Although the health benefits that she thinks her Dove and Hershey chocolates contain are doubtful, the repeated pleasurable experience of consuming the chocolate and the added psychological boost of doing something to improve her health, further reinforce an aura of positivity around chocolate.
ENGAGING WITH THE ISSUES?
Even experiences that might have caused Martina to think about the production of chocolate and possible negative aspects, were overtaken by positive associations. She recalled her experience of seeing a cacao farm for the first time and thinking about the production of chocolate:
“I was on my honeymoon in St. Lucia and I saw a cacao plantation and thought it was very interesting. I hadn’t thought about the growing process before and where chocolate came from.”
The cacao plantation interests her but the joy and love associated with the honeymoon is the predominant sentiment that comes through when she describes the experience. She does not mention labor conditions or ecological considerations. I then asked Martina if she knew why she hadn’t thought about the production of chocolate before and if she currently has any concerns when making chocolate purchasing decisions.
“Hmmmm I am not really sure. I guess I just feel so far removed from the production of it that I hadn’t really considered the growing process. And I don’t really have any social or biological considerations in mind when I buy chocolate….. even though I probably should. I try to be conscious of what I eat. I get local vegetables, grass-fed meat (and little of it), cage-free eggs. I have done some reading about food health and environmental costs of food production, but I don’t think about it as much with chocolate. I think it might be because I can’t get locally-sourced chocolate. I feel like I don’t have as much control over what types I can get. And with the amount that I eat, I don’t think about if it is sustainably harvested on a daily basis. But I do appreciate getting that information when it is available.”
I found this response by Martina fascinating because it shows that she is normally a conscious consumer. She is invested in learning about where her food comes from and the impact of buying and eating certain products. She then acts on this information and buys in a manner consistent with her beliefs. It is then especially interesting that her careful purchasing of food items does not extend to chocolate. She suggests that this may be because of a lack of information – without having good knowledge about what types of chocolates are best for the environment and best for the farm workers, it is difficult to make a good choice.
I then asked her if she buys chocolate other than the Dove and Hershey individually wrapped chocolates, and she responded:
“When I buy for other people I am buying a nice chocolate. A good quality chocolate. It can be a little overwhelming even because there are such vast arrays. So sometimes I go by pretty packaging haha. Well, as long as there is something interesting about it – single source, or sustainably harvested, or fair trade. For example, I bought a range of chocolates (both in brand and chocolate percentage) to give to my brother for his birthday so that he could sample the different types. Some were single source, others were fair trade.”
It seems from this response that, for Martina, labels like “free trade” and “single source” are terms that add intrigue and a sense of high quality, rather than terms that could indicate the farming conditions, good pay, or positive social impact. Rather than mention buying fair trade as a way to, for example, combat the mistreatment of children working small plots of in West Africa, it is something that adds to the packaging and makes the bar an “interesting” purchase (Berlan 2013). Child slavery is a serious issue in some places, with evidence of children not being paid, often missing school, and some being made to do strenuous, dangerous work (Berlan, 2013; Off, 2008; Ryan, 2011). This is just one of many ethical considerations, but her inability to grapple with these types of issues stems from her ingrained positive relationship with chocolate and lack of good alternatives.
For Martina, deeply thinking about the chocolate that she consumes would mean questioning the fond memories that she has and the continual joy that she receives from consuming it daily. It would also mean changing her purchasing habits (as she has done with her vegetables, dairy, fruit, and meat). In fact, it is precisely because she acts on these environmental and health considerations when it comes to other foods that investigating chocolate would lead to an unfavorable outcome for her.
She makes the important point that getting good information about the production of chocolate is difficult, and there are few companies that have that knowledge and are transparent with it. Restricting herself to only buying from companies that share this knowledge publicly would greatly constrain her purchasing options and significantly increase the price she pays for chocolate. Her awareness that it would be nearly impossible to pivot her chocolate consumption to a different, more transparent brand at the levels that she consumes it, prevents her from engaging with the ethical side of chocolate production.
Martina’s experience is probably not that different from that of many people in the U.S.. Chocolate is ubiquitous in the United States and this prevalence has led many of us to develop a love for it. I doubt any member of “Chocolate and the Politics of Food” would support companies and operations that involve exploitative practices. But without access to good information about the nature of production of our favorite chocolates, what options do we have? It is certainly easier to switch to sustainable and ethical products in areas of life where they are readily accessible, than to give up a product you love.
Berlan, Amanda. “Social sustainability in agriculture: An anthropological perspective on child labour in cocoa production in Ghana.” The Journal of Development Studies 49.8 (2013): 1088-1100.
Fisher, Naomi DL, and Norman K. Hollenberg. “Flavanols for cardiovascular health: the science behind the sweetness.” Journal of hypertension 23.8 (2005): 1453-1459.
This commercial offers a glimpse at two important points in a young boy’s life. The commercial begins with the boy practicing soccer alone on a cold fall day when he schemes to combat his loneliness. The viewer watches the boy’s plan unfold. Then the commercial skips about 9 months to a scene with his family when the boy’s plan is fully realized. Watch this heartfelt commercial below:
This ad is for Stratos chocolate, a Norwegian chocolate bar distributed by Nidar.
Unfortunately, I could not find out when or where this commercial was aired. This commercial is long compared to most 30-second ads that air. This ad is 1 minute and 20 seconds. There is surprisingly little research that has been done regarding the lengths of commercials (Zhou), but from my own experience, somebody who did not feel an emotional connection to this commercial would lose interest in it after the first minute. The bored viewer would never even see chocolate in the advertisement—it’s not until the last 5 seconds that chocolate makes its appearance in this commercial! This length enables the commercial to appeal to the viewer who feels a connection with the child, the parents, or the story. I think that this appeals to mothers of young children, and especially mothers who worry about the happiness of their children. I know that when I watched the “P&G Thank You, Mom” commercials with my mom, she was really touched. (If you’re interested, watch the one a ski racer I grew up with, Mikaela Shiffrin here!)
The boy in this commercial is good at soccer-he has a great shot and he scores. When he scores, he is excited, but he is overcome with a sense of loneliness. Practicing soccer alone day after day must be taking a toll on this child. The boy gets his ball from the goal, and an idea pops into his head. Suddenly soccer is no longer important. He storms home, abandons his soccer ball in the entrance, and gets to work preparing a romantic dinner for his parents. The commercial shows the boy cooking pasta, setting the table, and putting together the finishing touches, all the while struggling to do so because he is too small for the kitchen and he has no companion to help him. There is a natural ending place in the commercial when the boy pretends to yawn, thereby giving himself an excuse to leave his parents alone, to dim their bedroom light, and go to bed. This happens after about a minute of the commercial. But the commercial continues, much to the surprise of the viewer. In the ensuing scene, the boy and his father walk into a hospital. The boy is distressed and seems very unhappy. When he shoves the door into his mother’s hospital room, he barely makes eye contact with her, ignores her attempt to reach out to him, and walks past her and around her bed. In this tense scene, the viewer realizes the mother is in the hospital with a newborn child. The viewer also realizes that the parents are probably very concerned that their eldest son will not accept the new sibling. On the other side of the hospital bed, the boy inspects the crib. When he realizes he has a new brother, the boy nods his approval to his parents and gently places a pair of soccer cleats on the stomach of the newborn. This comes as an enormous relief, both to the parents and to the viewer, leaving all involved stunned. The commercial pans to a view of the boy pulling a Stratos chocolate bar from his shorts pocket. He opens the bar, takes a bite, and plops down on a chair in the hospital room. At this point, there are only several seconds left in the commercial. In the remaining time, the slogan “makes good better” is displayed to the viewer.
This commercial is long, involved, and nuanced. It took me several viewings to appreciate the commercial. At first I thought it was cute but I didn’t realize how much the commercial was about the little boy scheming. One aspect of the commercial that I didn’t immediately pic up on is the boy’s clothing. In the soccer scene, the boy wears his manchester United jersey over a sweatshirt. In the hospital, the boy wears the same shirt, but with no undershirt. My guess is this is exactly 9 months after the lonely soccer day. Perhaps this red jersey is used to trick the viewer into thinking the commercial is for Vodafone, leaving the chocolate as a surprise for those who pay attention to the end of the commercial. Another part of the commercial that was not apparent in the beginning is that the boy doesn’t make dinner with the sole intention to impress his parents. He constructs an evening for his parents to feel close to each other, appreciate their child, and decide to move to the bedroom to try and have another child. This boy is very enterprising, discrete, clever, and creative. The chocolate brings out the best of these qualities-it “makes good better.”
The commercial leaves the viewer with the notion that chocolate was responsible for the angel-like characteristics of the boy. This still advertisement helps somebody who has been exposed to the commercial make sense of it by guiding them with the familiar “if you give a mouse a cookie…” book model.
In Emma Robertson’s book entitled Chocolate, women, and empire: a social and cultural history, one of they types of chocolate advertisements Robertson describes is those of Rowntree in the 1930s that featured children, especially girls, helping their parents in “gendered ways” (Robertson 21). In this specific Stratos chocolate ad, the young boy performs household tasks to compel his parents to have another child. This commercial is interesting because while it features a child helping his parents, the child has an ulterior motive that is not apparent until a close analysis of the ad. This commercial does not have any racial undertones, which seems rare in chocolate advertisements. Perhaps this is because the intended audience is European, not American. The only time in this commercial there is speaking is when the boy exclaims “Yes!” when he scores a goal. The music is in English, but this ad was probably aired in a country where English is not the primary language. Combined with the Manchester United jersey and the English music, perhaps the creator of this ad was trying to present the chocolate in an English light to appeal further to a subset of mother consumers.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, women, and empire: A social and cultural history. Manchester University Press. 2009.
Zhou, Wen. The Choice of Commercial Breaks in Television Programs: The Number, Length, and Timing. The Journal of Industrial Economics, Vol. 51, No. 3. September 2004. Paes 315-326.