Chocolate has had romantic and sexual connotations essentially since its birth, or at least dating back to “the European conquest of Mexico,” which was dually a conquest of the Aztec Empire (Coe & Coe, 29). Even in ancient use, chocolate was seen as both an aphrodisiac and a necessary facet of marital ceremonies. Such an association has accompanied chocolate to the modern world, though not without undergoing transformations in its exact manifestation in social customs and thus marketing. These transformations are not unfounded; instead, they took place alongside and were the result of historical change. One such change, which substantiates the focus of this paper, is the demonization of obesity which consequently led to the demonization of chocolate. Chocolate entered the Western world as almost a healthy option, which doesn’t come as a surprise given that it was considered a medicine in both ancient and early European societies. This thought survived only until the 17th century, when William Harvey’s work advanced knowledge of the cardiovascular system which disproved the Galenic medical model in which chocolate was included. But even after that, chocolate was revered for its ability to sustain and give energy. Take, for example, its role as a “fighting food” in World War II. Chocolate enjoyed this favorable role until around the mid-twentieth century, when chocolate and candy were exposed for their role in weight gain during a post-WWII stigmatization of obesity. The unhealthy aspects of chocolate were brought to light, and public attitudes toward it were fundamentally changed. And although a focus on women had always been congenital to the marketing of chocolate, this shift brought with it a change in exactly how this focus was manipulated. Women in chocolate advertisements went from being depicted as wholly domestic and in charge of family matters to being depicted as overly sexual and out of control. This shift was made in order to overcome chocolate’s newly immoral image by equating it to sex, which is socially acceptable but also technically sinful. But since women remained central to chocolate marketing, this pairing exudes deeper implications about women in relation to chocolate and sex, which are ultimately unfounded and yet have profoundly impacted public sentiment.
I was brought to such a conclusion through an interview regarding chocolate that I conducted with a good female friend of mine at Harvard College. We sat down in a café and had the following conversation.
Q: What is your favorite kind of chocolate?
A: Mostly white chocolates, but I also love the Cadbury Curly Wurly and Reese’s in particular.
Q: What kind of chocolate do you consider high quality?
A: Dark chocolates, or I guess specific brands like Lindt, or Lindor truffles…definitely not Hershey’s or Snickers. Do you know Milka? I think that’s European and it’s different but I’d probably consider that nice. The kinds that people give as gifts are usually nice.
Q: To whom do you gift chocolate, if ever?
A: You! Haha. But also my little sisters and anyone I feel bad for. It’s a nice quick way to make someone feel better. It’s easy, convenient, and everyone likes chocolate.
Q: Do people ever give you chocolate?
A: My family at holidays, and sometimes guys.
Q: In what situations do you eat the most chocolate?
A: Holidays and if I feel bad or upset about something. Chocolate is nice because it makes you feel happy. I think there are studies on that, that it makes you feel happy because of the sugar. Some people are addicted to it I think.
Q: Understandable. Lastly, in what context do you see chocolate most often advertised?
A: Oh! Wait. This is something I can really go on about because it’s so weird to me, and so interesting. Advertisements use women and eating, and sexualize the women eating it, which makes it seem doubly attractive because of both the woman and the chocolate. It makes you think of sex and like, sinning, because chocolate’s unhealthy and sex is associated with sin. Not that sex is something to be ashamed of, but they’re associated. If you’re writing a paper on this you should do it on that!
My friend’s influence on my topic is pretty evident from my last question, which excited her to the extent that she insisted I use the interview to highlight that correlation. But even her answers to other, non-explicitly gender-based questions contribute evidence to the sexualization of women in chocolate advertising, its exact form, and the misconceptions it generates even to someone so obviously aware of it. To elaborate, her responses demonstrate how higher quality chocolate in particular is gifted to women by men or by other woman, but rarely to men. Furthermore, she clearly buys into the indulgent role of chocolate, and its ability to make her feel better instantly. This thought, unbeknownst to her, is also partially the result of chocolate advertising. But the advertising does not function this way arbitrarily; it acts on associations which, despite having morphed over time, are in fact grounded in chocolate’s roots.
Chocolate’s ancient romance-based role as an aphrodisiac and a factor in betrothal may be the starting point of the focus on women in particular since these connotations include heteronormative and monogamous assumptions. Women are therefore necessarily involved. In Mayan culture, kings purportedly sent messengers equipped with beaten chocolate out to found them wives (Coe & Coe, 61). And at the ceremony itself, the bride and groom would give each other five grains of cacao (Coe & Coe, 61). The first instance clearly illustrates that chocolate would, in that case, be expected to woo such a bride. Thus, chocolate’s supposed love-inducing power on women is seen even here. This concept was somewhat exempt from some of the early to mid-twentieth century chocolate advertising campaigns, which had other intentions, but it resurfaces in the current environment.
The aforementioned campaigns, which took place in the first half of the twentieth century, lack this concept because they sought to situate women and chocolate in the domestic realm. They were particularly prolific following the First and Second World Wars, due to the fact that women had worked traditionally male jobs in place of men who had been drafted. Female empowerment and the beginnings of an understanding of equal ability regardless of sex had emerged, and a heady effort was made to re-establish gender roles and thus reduce any competition with women for jobs. One way of doing this was to trumpet the image of the “housewife,” generally in an overwhelmingly positive light, so that women understood that this was still their primary role. Naturally advertising campaigns are an efficient way of making public statements, and so it isn’t surprising that cocoa and chocolate ads in this era worked to this end. Instead of focusing on women in a sexual manner, they focused on them in their roles as “the main shopper of the family, or at least the coordinator of the all the family shopping” (Robertson 23). A Rowntree poster depicts a woman carrying cups of cocoa for her children while they play with her outfit, which is starkly reminiscent of a maid’s uniform. This design is purposeful, and is included to insinuate that the purpose of wives and mothers is directly comparable to that of a maid. And a 1937 Baker’s Chocolate ad shows happy children and, separately, a woman eating dessert with her husband with a description that exclaims, “Gee, Mother’s a parent with swell ideas! (She’s smart, too, to make her soufflé with Baker’s Chocolate.” Ultimately, this illustration of women gives them some kind of power, even if it comes from a distinct “feminine knowledge” which was gleaned through being relegated to full-time housewife status (Robertson 23).
In the 1940s and 50s in America, however, nutritional health concerns suddenly became paramount and obesity was increasingly stigmatized. Although being overweight was viewed as unappealing in previous decades, “psychiatrically-oriented postwar medical thinking about obesity was more stigmatizing…newer biomedical theory linked fatness to the already stigmatized condition of addiction and authorized attribution of moral blame to the fat” (Rasmussen 880). This new psychiatric attitude also directly blamed mothers for the obesity of children. Hilde Bruch, a New York psychoanalyst claimed that the “key element of a family environment promoting obesity…was a domineering mother too invested in mothering…this overmothering involved overfeeding” (Rasmussen 883). Given this blame-oriented reaction to unhealthiness and fat, chocolate advertisements naturally needed to alter their methodology and move away from the idea that smart mothers feed their children large amounts of chocolate and cocoa. Because although chocolate served as a sustainer, in its most popular form it also contained large amounts of sugar and fat. But the question then became one of what the new appeal of chocolate would be. This was an especially difficult issue, for the reason that unhealthy foods like candy and chocolate were not only stigmatized…they were essentially demonized (Lecture note, 8. March 2017). This is largely due to timing and grouping— “addiction and fatness attracted widespread popular stigma at about the same time—and for the same set of reasons based in a Protestant morality strained by the abundance of industrial capitalism” (Rasmussen 881). Opiate and cocaine addiction came to the forefront of societal concerns at the beginning of the twentieth century, and addicts were gradually seen as incurable and even criminal (Rasmussen 881). And those involved in the temperance movement which was in full swing until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 continued to condemn alcohol consumption largely for the addiction it was so disposed to cause. Now that obesity was also thought to be the result of addiction, but to food, the overweight were similarly denounced and eating junk food was, through this parallel, equated to committing a sin.
The best way to conquer this new face of chocolate was ultimately to embrace this idea of sin by pairing it with sex and lust. This pairing made sinning out to be a good thing, grounded in the understanding that sex is technically a “sin,” or morally perverse, and yet people engage in it regardless and with pleasure. If chocolate had instead been paired with a sin that has virtually no nuance and which is inhumane as opposed to immoral for religious reasons which not all people agree with, such as murder or theft, such a method would plainly fail. Needless to say, no advertising agency would assume this position—the comparison seeks only to elucidate how the choice of lust is one of few ways to save a name which had been thrust into the realm of immorality. From the pairing of sex and chocolate, emerges a concept of dual indulgence in both. The thought is that although eating chocolate is wrong for health reasons, it is addictive and pleasurable and understandable in the eyes of modern society, as is sex. This manifested itself in commercials and posters of beautiful women eating chocolate in a notably seductive fashion, and acting as though the chocolate itself is as pleasurable as sex. Some advertisements even make a point of acting as though the women are so drawn to the chocolate that it makes them irrational and out-of-control. This idea is pervasively linked to romance, where women are also stereotypically (albeit unfairly) thought to be irrational when inextricably involved with men. And sex in particular is thought to be a cause of this irrationality. The other common form of chocolate advertising features men gifting chocolate to women with “implied meanings of gratitude and sexual submission” (Robertson 33). Random gifting takes on the insinuation of seduction, or of chocolate’s ability to literally seduce a woman both in its intrinsic role as an addictive delicacy and in its role as reasoning to be grateful to a man and therefore be willing to indulge him. And in another chocolate-gifting trope, chocolate is given to appease a woman who is angry with her significant other. In these scenarios, the woman “overcome[s] such faults as a bad temper…the man is never really bad and there is a reason for his moodiness” (Robertson 30). Therefore, here too is the idea that women are inherently irrational, and that they can be either “subdued by the gift of chocolate” or simply seduced by it (Robertson 32). Regardless, they are often portrayed as out of control through images of them being both driven crazy by and placated by chocolate. It is important to note that this type of advertising was originally restricted mostly to nice chocolates and chocolate assortments—Emma Robertson qualifies that “at least until the 1970s, the link between sex and chocolate had become circumscribed according to the type of chocolate being marketed” (30). Cocoa powder and chocolate geared toward children remained innocuous. This is still the case on some level, which is why my friend equated nice, dark chocolates with the kinds one would gift. But this is a qualifier mostly only when concerning gifting—modern advertisements such as those first described tend to link women and sexiness regardless of quality. The sexual connotation now comes across in most marketing of chocolate.
Clearly, even before the health revolution of the 1950s, women were a focus of advertising efforts. Marketing is often gendered—commercials for traditionally “masculine” commodities such as cars and razors and cologne focus conversely on men to promote a masculine association with their product. An example of this which ironically coincides with gendered chocolate marketing is this Axe commercial. While still primarily featuring a man, it insinuates that the passion women ostensibly have for chocolate and the passion they will have for men that wear Axe deodorant are equivocal. For this to be appealing to men, this passion is necessarily sexual.
Aside from highlighting the toxic masculinity that emerges in advertising from companies such as Axe, this campaign functions for our purposes on two levels. As previously touched upon, it proves that chocolate has been shaped into something that the public feels women are literally attracted to in a sexual manner. The man is happy because, in his role as a man made entirely of chocolate, he is a recipient of the sexual desire men crave. Secondly, the fashion in which women respond to him is intentionally almost animalistic, so crazed are they by chocolate. While this implicitly lends proof to the earlier idea that gifted chocolate is meant to elicit a sexual response, it also speaks to the broader theme of female irrationality and impulsiveness at the hands of both chocolate and sex.
This theme can be proven to be artificially manufactured, however, at least in terms of chocolate. Societal views on female irrationality regarding sex are more nuanced and deserve to be more deeply analyzed separately. The trajectory of chocolate and a lack of control began when chocolate and other junk foods, after being caught up in the wave of altered medical and psychiatric thought of the mid-twentieth century, were classified as addictive. But the chocolate industry clearly decided to use this to their benefit. By subsequently linking chocolate to sex, the addictive classification was exacerbated. Sex is also considered classically addictive—Jamal Fahim notes that we “typically associate addictive behavior with drugs, alcohol, or sexual behavior” (13). So the link to sex compounded the addictive label and implied that chocolate can elicit reactions similar to those elicited by drugs and alcohol—chemical and unnatural. This made chocolate into a necessary indulgence, which is one way of increasing sales. Advertising is therefore necessarily involved, since it is the realm in which the association grew. It is also interesting to note that, in an age where addictions to such substances were under heavy criticism, “tobacco and alcohol are socially deemed masculine luxuries” (Fahim 12). Thus, it appears that the addictions plaguing the public were largely those associated with masculinity. It is therefore convenient that a new addiction emerged which was almost concretely linked to women through the media. Though it cannot be stated with any certainty, it is possible that likening chocolate to an addiction and then placing it in the female realm redistributed blame for a societal problem which previously had more of a male affiliation. After all, women were also targeted in Hilde Burch’s aforementioned concept that the overfeeding mother is responsible for child obesity. Regardless, claims of the addictive properties of chocolate are for the most part unsubstantiated— “studies on chocolate have indicated that the amounts of these mood-enhancing chemicals, such as alkaloids or Phenethylamine, are at such a low level that it is unlikely that they are the reason behind the euphoria one feels when they consume chocolate” (Aaron and Bearden 2008:169, as qtd. in Fahim, 14). Yes, chocolate tastes good and the alkaloids that it contains (caffeine and theobromine) may have some positive effects on mood and stimulation, but it is not addictive in the same way that drugs and sex are. Research that portrays it in such a manner in order to “validate a deeper relationship to sex [is] so negligible and trivial that one must conclude that it is only chocolate marketing that perpetuates chocolate’s association with love and sex and its implied special relevance to women” (Fahim 15).
The lack of scientific evidence to back chocolate addiction theories doesn’t change the fact that the stereotypes crafted by the advertising world have genuinely imbedded themselves in society. This is evident in the interview with my friend. For example, the gender-based one-way gifting is validated by her anecdotal evidence, in that she recalls giving gifts to me and her sisters alone, while receiving them from men. She also has a little brother, and so it is significant that she didn’t mention him while describing giving chocolate to little siblings. The history of chocolate’s public image makes the gifting of chocolate to boys and men seem almost outlandish. She also touched upon her tendency to eat chocolate when she’s upset because it makes her feel happier, even adding that this is why some people are possibly addicted to it. This made me realize that misconceptions put forth by the marketing of chocolate have been widely accepted by the public, because her description of chocolate betrays a belief that chocolate has powers similar to that of a drug in enhancing mood. And this notion has been strongly influenced by advertising’s exaggerated depictions of the female reaction to chocolate.
There is, however, probably some validity to the natural mood-enhancing capabilities of chocolate. Recent years have yielded an abundance of literature heralding positive effects of chocolate on maladies such as depression, blood pressure, and inflammation. It is important to keep in mind that, in such research, “reported results are based upon dark rather than milk chocolate” (Coe & Coe, 30). But since entirely dark chocolate is not sweet like milk chocolate, it has not been incredibly popular with the public. Thus, even if such research is valid, it wouldn’t apply to the vast majority of the mainstream chocolate onto which the media projects its fabricated claims.
What is most interesting to me about the marketing of chocolate is its loyalty to a feminine focus. When the basis of the domesticity-based chocolate and cocoa campaigns was uprooted by the obsession with thinness and the stigmatization of obesity of the mid-twentieth century, marketers of chocolate turned to sex in connection with women in particular to make chocolate similarly alluring and deserving of indulgence. The link to sex also purposefully deepened chocolate’s addictive connotation, so that consumers would feel chocolate was a necessary purchase. But the new methodology didn’t fail to maintain the strong feminine association of the domestic campaign. Although men are implicit in the sexually-tinged gifting policies, it is women that appear in almost all advertisements and often alone with their chocolate, being seduced by it and also seducing the viewer. This propensity to preserve the pairing of women and chocolate, combined with what appears to be growing acknowledgement of dark chocolate and its health benefits, leads me to wonder what kind of marketing we can expect to see if chocolate’s image shifts again. One might think that the focal point of its advertising strategy would simply revert back to domestic life as in the early twentieth century and earlier, but I would argue that the economic equality of women, although not complete, has advanced to the extent that this would not be the new structure. Instead, I think it would be based on the modern focus on women and a societal expectation that they will maintain their health and their body image. For example, I can picture marketing similar to that of this Special K commercial, but trumpeting mental health or blood pressure as opposed to weight loss.
Because unfortunately, it appears that the marketing of chocolate is insistent on keeping a gendered focus. But we can at least hope that, if dark chocolate’s health benefits become fact and are widely understood by the public, chocolate consumption will lose the connection to immorality which likens it to sex, and that women in chocolate advertising will thus cease to be over-sexualized. Granted, this could be replaced by the gendered double standards of health maintenance, but I consider those to be the lesser of two evils. Lastly, needless to say, in the best case scenario the gendered focus of the advertising would be eradicated entirely—but given no guarantee of this, I aim only to predict a slightly better alternative.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
“Chocolate Advertisements.” Slate Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 May 2017. <http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slideshows/double_x/doublex/2012/02/13/chocolate-advertisements/jcr%3Acontent/slideshow/6/images%252Fslides%252FChocolate_7.jpg >.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: a Social and Cultural History. Manchester and New York: Manchester U Press, 2009. Print. Distributed in the United States exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan.
Elsey, Brian. Retro Image, Rowntree’s Chocolates and Cocoa. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2017. <http://www.historyworld.co.uk/retroimage.php?opt=retro&pic=123>.
Rudolph, Janet. “Dying for Chocolate.” Thanksgiving Weekend: Baker’s Vintage 1937 Ad & Recipes. N.p., 27 Nov. 2011. Web. 01 May 2017. <http://dyingforchocolate.blogspot.com/2011/11/thanksgiving-weekend-bakers-vintage.html>.
Rasmussen, Nicolas. “Weight stigma, addiction, science, and the medication of fatness in mid-twentieth century America.” Sociology of Health & Illness 34.6 (2012): 880-95. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
Lecture Notes: information recorded in class, provided by Professor Carla D. Martin.
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Elliott, Stuart. “Godiva Rides in a New Direction.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Nov. 2009. Web. 01 May 2017. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/16/business/media/16adnewsletter1.html>.
“BLACK MAGIC CHOCOLATE ADVERTISEMENT 1939.” Flickr. Ed. Star1950. Yahoo!, 17 July 2008. Web. 01 May 2017. <https://www.flickr.com/photos/castlekay/2678319672>.
Matheuscp. N.d. YouTube. YouTube, 30 Jan. 2008. Web. 02 May 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZK7HS9J46Y>.
Fahim, Jamal, “Beyond Cravings: Gender and Class Desires in Chocolate Marketing” (2010). Sociology Student Scholarship. http://scholar.oxy.edu/sociology_student/3
Johnklin. N.d. YouTube. YouTube, 29 Sept. 2009. Web. 04 May 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPJpkgqLQ_M>.