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The Impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement on the Marketing of Chocolate Bonbons, by: Kathleen Banks Nutter, Lecturer SUNY Stony Brook, NY USA


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In her recent self-help book entitled Better Than Sex: Chocolate Principles to Live By, British author Theresa Cheung claims that it was her long-standing “love affair with chocolate” that prompted her to write this pocket-size guide to better living through chocolate—“without feeling guilty.”[i]  She begins with some “Bite-Sized Chocolate Facts,” the most intriguing one, I think, is that “according to Cadbury’s spokesman Tony Bilsborough, a massive 60 percent of women would rather have a one-to-one with a chocolate bar than have sex!”[ii]  The intimate connection between women and chocolate has long been recognized.  Chocolate Sex: A Naughty Little Book begins by stating:

Women lust after chocolate.  Their desire for it is overpowering; no matter how hard a woman tries to restrain herself with visions of tight black dresses or tiny bikinis, she knows in her heart she will ultimately succumb to chocolate’s seductive call.[iii]

Even before women’s lust for chocolate was recognized, the connection between chocolate and lust itself was made. Indeed, the conceptualization of chocolate as an aphrodisiac dates to the sixteenth century.[iv]  By the start of the twentieth century as the business historian Gail Cooper has argued, chocolate candy “as a marker of the special occasion was clearly seen in its importance to courtship.  Men routinely bought chocolate for the women they courted.”[v]  But today, women are free to indulge themselves in the chocolate candy of their choice.  It has even been argued that women actually need chocolate “to look and feel great.”[vi]  So why wait for someone else to fulfill your most basic needs?

After all, American women have now achieved relative power within society—especially in legal terms—thanks to the vast accomplishments of the women’s movement.  Women can attend university, enter the profession of their choice, run for higher office, serve on juries, open their own charge accounts—and, maybe with the help of those charge accounts, buy their own chocolates, thus fulfilling their own needs. And the marketing techniques of chocolate makers—from the global enterprise of Godiva Chocolatiers to the Seattle-based Chick Chocolates whose small bonbons are sold in packaging made to resemble a lipstick and are “Fabulous, like you!”—reflect the tremendous social and political change that has brought about this particular form of self-fulfillment since the 1960s.

In this paper, I want to briefly examine the representation of women and chocolate in American advertising from the 1950s to the present as one way of highlighting the impact of the modern women’s movement on advertising in America much of which now routinely uses feminism as a lifestyle that sells.  I believe that ads for chocolate candy are especially well suited for such an examination.  As the historian John C. Super has claimed, “food is the ideal cultural symbol that allows the historian to uncover hidden levels of meaning in social relationships and arrive at new understandings of the human experience.”[vii]  This is especially the case when food is looked at through the lens of gender as I am doing here by focusing on the representation of women in chocolate candy advertisements since the 1950s. 

In focusing on women as consumers, food advertisements can serve as rich source material for such an examination, a fact recognized not least by its practitioners.  According to Denise Fedewa, senior vice president and planning director for Leo Burnett Worldwide, one of the nation’s top advertising agencies, advertising in general is “both a mirror of the culture and it moves the culture forward.”  Co-founder of her agency’s sub-unit called “Leo-She,” Fedewa claims that “the best advertising, the most successful advertising, is advertising that taps into a direction that we are moving in, but we are not there yet, and it helps take us there.”[viii]   Whether advertising reflects our cultural reality and/or helps create it, the historian Katherine Parkin has recently noted the conscious effort of food advertisers to present their products “as gendered and sexual,” particularly since the end of World War II.[ix]  The ads I want to focus on here reflect this very conscious effort.

The contrast between ads from the 1950s and early 1960s and later ones highlights the impact of the modern women’s movement on chocolate candy ads.  Having survived the Great Depression and the Second World War, many Americans entered a sustained period of relative prosperity during the Cold War period. The American economy was booming and the national birth rate boomed as well.  More Americans married and did so at an earlier age than the previous generation.  According to the historian Beth Bailey, teenage dating as an art form reached its zenith during the 1950s and into the early 1960s—leading young women to their ultimate fulfillment, a happy marriage. 

One such union was enjoyed by Pat and Shirley Boone who are featured in a 1961 ad for King’s Chocolates.  King’s Chocolates were “for American Queens,” and were the “Greatest [for a man] to Give,” but were “even Greater [for a woman] to Get!”[x]  However, not everyone eating chocolate bonbons in the 1950s was in the “nuclear family in the nuclear age” as Elaine Tyler May has put it. Hardly a typical suburban housewife, a fur-covered and rather sultry-looking Lana Turner urged her fans in another ad from 1953 to “Enjoy Brach’s Fine Candies,” especially their chocolate-covered cherries.[xi] 

Looking more like the young housewife next door, the woman featured in an ad from 1958 has just received a box of Whitman’s from “the nicest man in the world.” With her wedding ring prominently displayed on one hand as she holds a bonbon in the other, we can assume that “nicest man in the world” is her husband who has fulfilled her deepest longings. It should also be noted she holds that half-bitten piece of candy between her first two fingers as one might hold a cigarette—perhaps the candy industry was still competing with the tobacco industry for consumer loyalty thirty years after the Lucky Strike campaign of the 1920s. But within a few years, confectioners would face an even greater challenge as a social revolution took off with the growing recognition among some women that there was more to life than a nice man, a home in the suburbs, and a growing family. 

When she published Feminine Mystique in 1963, Betty Friedan called it “the problem with no name.”[xii] Widely-read especially by white, educated middle-class housewives, such as the one who just a few years earlier was eating the chocolate given to her by the nicest man in the world, Friedan argued that the socially proscribed dictum that women’s sense of fulfillment was best achieved by meeting the needs of others while ignoring her own longings explained women’s oppression in general.  Furthermore, advertisers were complicit in perpetuating this oppression through the words and images they used to sell a plethora of products. But in the 1960s profound social changes would usher in a new era—for women and men and their relationships with each other—and in their chocolate consumption.

The historian Beth Bailey has argued that “By the late 1960s, a new incarnation of youth culture and the beginnings of a new feminism challenged some of the values embedded in the dating system and undercut some of the public controls effected by convention.”[xiii]  So too was the consumption of chocolate candy, at least as purchased by a man for a woman, effected.  Anticipating perhaps 1967’s “Summer of Love,” Brach’s advertised a heart-shaped box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day that same year, promising the presumably male purchaser, “Free kisses with every box of Brach’s Valentine Chocolates you give to her.”[xiv]  The growing rejection of sexual mores of the past, made possible in the age before AIDS, in part with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960, was increasingly evident in 1960s America.  Within the so-called “free love” generation, one’s parents’ courtship practices were seen as old-fashioned as the Whitman cross-stitched adorned candy box itself.  The social impact of the women’s liberation movement at the end of the 1960s further emphasized for many the sexist tokenism represented by the man’s gift of a box of chocolates bonbons to a woman he sought and the advertising industry responded to these changes in the rules of heterosexual relationships in its own quirky way. 

As historian Juliann Sivulka has noted, “During the 1960s, the social forces of feminism hit Madison Avenue.”[xv]    By the early 1970s the advertising community periodically assessed itself regarding how its presentation might or might not be appealing to, as they called them, “women’s liberationists.” Articles with titles such as “A Woman’s Place: A Follow-up Analysis of the Roles Portrayed by Women in Magazine Advertisements” and “Women’s Role Portrayal Preferences in Advertisements: An Empirical Study” asked questions such as “Do women who believe most strongly in the tenets of the Women’s Liberation Movement also tend most strongly to perceive a product as more desirable when the woman in the advertisement is portrayed in a working role?”[xvi]  Interestingly, the answer was that it depended on the product.  If it was a “family-related” product such as a refrigerator, than a woman appearing in such an ad as within the bosom of her family was deemed appealing to both liberated and non-liberated women alike.  But if it was a product associated with personal use, such as deodorant, then women’s liberationists responded more favorably to ads using “career women.”   But chocolate bonbon advertisers were faced with a double burden.  Not only would they have to redesign their ad approach to reach the newly liberated woman, they would have to do so for a product that for many represented a pre-women’s liberation movement world.

By the early 1970s the chocolate candy industry was also challenged by the growing health consciousness of many Americans.  As part of the mainstream adoption of some aspects of the counterculture, carob beans were touted as an alternative, healthier source of chocolate taste than cocoa beans.  Increasingly, chocolate in any form was seen as something bad for you, but that was nonetheless so good it had to remain available if only as a very special treat. But now, instead of being a token of courtship given by a man to a woman, chocolate could be shared as a decadent delight or even consumed by a woman as a solitary “sensuous bedtime snack,” while reading Cosmo perhaps, thus fulfilling her own needs.[xvii] 

In the process, chocolate itself became more publicly eroticized, not surprising given the centuries-held notion of chocolate as an aphrodisiac, as noted by a cover story from a 1975 issue of High Times. The cover image sets the tone for the article inside and reflects the increasingly openly erotic relationship between women and chocolate.  Behind the cover blurb, “Deep Dark Secrets of Chocolate,” is a woman’s naked breast, the erect nipple pointing upward as chocolate is poured from an unseen source above the High Times logo.  Yet another cover blurb, above the title, reads: “Does Grass Really Make Your Breasts Grow?,” an article that discusses the effect of marijuana on male breast growth.  While this 1975 issue of High Times may have focused on both male and female breasts, its content matter regarding chocolate as a kind of drug was part of a growing literature on the chemical properties of what High Times called in 1975 the “delicious temptress.”[xviii]

During the decadent and self-indulgent Reagan era of the 1980s it was still possible to find that yellow box of Whitman’s at the local drug store.  But, high-end chocolate candy—preferably handmade and European in origin—became a commodity whose very purchase symbolized one’s status.  Thus it remained appropriate for a man to give a woman chocolates, as long as they were European and expensive, and meant to be shared in an intimate moment, such as “Baci, Italy’s most romantic—and delicious chocolate.”  A Baci’s ad from 1988 features a young, attractive woman, apparently naked and buried up to her chest in a pile of Baci bonbons, who “knows, in Italian, Baci means kisses.  And she also knows that with kisses, it’s best to be generous.”[xix]  Here is evidence of the ultimate in self-indulgent, even decadent consumption as she shares this erotic treat with her partner as she gives her kisses, fulfilling her own longings as she continues to fulfill those of another.

By the mid-1990s American women had achieved relative power within society, especially in legal terms, reflecting the impact of the modern women’s movement.  No longer should women expect to find their fulfillment outside themselves.  Rather, women could and should feel free to fulfill their own longings, including those for chocolate.  In 1995, dietician and self-help author Debra Waterhouse published Why Women Need Chocolate arguing that if women sensibly recognized their biologically-determined craving for chocolate, they’d “feel better, function more effectively, eat less, enjoy the food more—and you’ll never have to diet again!”[xx]  At the same time, women have repeatedly been told over the last several years, in countless articles and books, that the craving much less the need for chocolate appears to only intensify when in the throes of pre-menstrual syndrome because of shifting hormones.  Thus, scientific rationale has legitimized what for so long seemed an irrational longing of overly emotional women.  Confectioners and their advertisers quickly adapted this theme of rationalized need for their own uses.

As Z Magazine co-founder and current editor Lydia Sargent has recently stated, “Feminist liberation is anything that sells a product,”[xxi] And what could be more liberating than consumption of a PMS chocolate candy bar? According to a PMS candy bar wrapper from 2003, on which in bright primary colors is depicted an angry–looking woman who appears to be in mid-howl, that chocolate is really “for ANY TIME of the MONTH!”  Part of the “True Confections” candy line, the PMS candy bar is just one of the many chocolates aimed specifically at women for self-purchase. According to Renee M. Corvino’s “Special Report: The Feminine Side of Chocolate,” for the industry’s trade magazine, Confectioner in 2005, chocolate candy manufacturers “have finally decided to cease their coolness of heart and return the affection—with special packages, shapes, and marketing messages that speak the modern female’s language of love.”[xxii] 

Chick Chocolates and Godiva Chocolatier are excellent examples of the recognition of feminist liberation as a lifestyle that sells products, even those products formerly associated with a pre-feminist way of life, or at least pre-feminist liberation practices of courtship.  Chick Chocolates are, according to their byline in 2005, “like you, fabulous.” Like True Confections which is based in western Massachusetts, the Seattle-based Chick Chocolates is a woman-operated company and makes sure its consumers are aware of that fact.  According to “Chief Chick and CEO” Jean Thompson, “For women, chocolate is more than a food choice, it’s a relationship.”[xxiii]  And in this case, it is a relationship over which the woman has a fair amount of control as the consumer of a product made with her needs in mind.  Certainly, the proliferation of these smaller, high-end candy makers are part of the growing trend in handmade, quality chocolates in America at the end of the twentieth century and into the current one.  But only some, such as Chick Chocolates sold in lipstick box-like packaging, unabashedly shape their product to “appeal” to women longing for self-fulfillment, three portion-controlled pieces to the box. 

There are also, as the twenty-first century reaches into its first decade, those larger chocolate concerns that craft their ads with a more subtle, seemingly gender-neutral appeal.  Russell Stover’s and Whitman’s both offer low-fat, low-carb versions of the perennial favorite box of chocolates in response to the diet concerns of many Americans, both male and female.  But, there are also those among the giants of the confectionery industry who consciously craft the marketing of their products to appeal to the feminist within every woman.  Godiva Chocolatier, long recognized as one of the premier makers of mass-produced but still high-end chocolate bonbons, launched an ad campaign in 2004 that plays on its famous name at the same time that it capitalizes on the recent trend to recognize certain women performers as “divas” as feminist inspirations for a new generation of women.

Such as the Godiva advertisement in the “GO DIVA” series that shows a sensuous young woman, her sweater pulled off one shoulder to reveal a ruffled sheer slip underneath; she sits sidewise but gazes directly at the viewer/consumer, delectable Godiva truffle in hand mid-air, presumably on its way to her mouth and not someone else’s.  Feminist Divas know that true pleasure lies in self-fulfillment.  With nary a man in sight, the ad text states that “Every woman is one part DIVA much to the dismay of every man.”[xxiv]  In selling products, especially perhaps chocolate, it seems that advertisers have chosen to take the notion of self-empowerment around which women’s liberation revolved and turn that concept into a marketing strategy based on the notion of self-fulfillment.

The cooptation of a potentially revolutionary movement by mainstream popular culture, thus leading to the devolution of that movement, is hardly a new argument—just ask any student familiar with the work of Gramsci.  In any case, it does appear that some chocolate makers today, such as Godiva and the Chick Chocolate line, are very consciously crafting their product and its presentation by using feminism as a lifestyle that sells.  Does this represent a cooptation of a movement of great social change, leading to a lessening of its ultimate impact?  Perhaps…but at least while concerned women ponder that, they can also reach for a piece of chocolate, made just with them in mind, and just like them, “fabulous!”

Kathleen Banks Nutter 

This paper was originally presented at the Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture Association Conference, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ USA, November 2005

Kathleen Banks Nutter is currently a Lecturer in the History Department at Stony Brook University; she is the author of numerous articles as well as 'The Necessity of Organization': Mary Kenney O'Sullivan and Trade Unionism for Women, 1892-1912 (Garland Press, 2000). At present, she is finishing up a manuscript tentatively titled Women and Chocolate: Production and Consumption in Twentieth-Century America.

For an expanded version of this paper, see the author’s article, “From Romance to PMS: Images of Women and Chocolate in Twentieth-Century America,” in Edible Ideologies, Kathleen LeBesco and Peter Naccarato, editors (SUNY Press, 2008).  For more information, see: http://www.sunypress.edu/details.asp?id=61540


Notes


[i] Theresa Cheung, Better Than Sex: Chocolate Principles to Live By (York Beach, ME: Conari Press, 2005), p. 2.

 

[ii] Cheung, p. 4.

 

[iii] A. Richard Barber, Nancy R.M. Whitin, and Anthony Loew, Chocolate Sex: A Naughty Little Book (New York: Warner Books, 1994), p. 3. NB: my examination of women and chocolate has been greatly enriched through conversations with my colleague and friend, Jane Elkind Bowers.

 

[iv] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate (New York: Thanes & Hudson, 1996), p. 31, emphasis added.

 

[v] Gail Cooper, “Love, War, and Chocolate: Gender and the American Candy Industry, 1880-1930,” in His and Hers: Gender, Consumption, and Technology, Roger Horowitz and Arwen Mohun, eds. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), p. 73.

 

[vi] Debra Waterhouse, Why Women Need Chocolate: Eat What You Crave To Look and Feel Great (New York: Hyperion, 1995).

 

[vii] John C. Super, “Food and History,” Journal of Social History Vol. 36, no. 1 (2002): 165.

 

[viii] Eileen Fischer, “Working for Women within the Organization: Eileen Fischer Interviews Denise Fedewa of LeoShe,” Advertising and Society Review Vol. 4, no. 4 (2003): 9 [available online through John Hopkins University Project Muse, retrieved 4 April 2005]. 

 

[ix] Katherine Parkin, “The Sex of Food and Ernest Dichter: The Illusion of Inevitability,” Advertising and Society Review Vol. 5, no. 2 (2004): n.p., [available online through John Hopkins University Project Muse, retrieved 4 April 2005]. 

 

[x] “Greatest to Give!,” King’s Chocolates, Inc., 1961.

 

[xi] “Enjoy Brach’s Fine Candies,” Brach’s Confectioners, Inc., 1953.

 

[xii] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell Books, 1984; orig. pub. 1963.

 

[xiii] Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988), p. 7.

 

[xiv] “Free kisses,” Brach’s Confectioners, Inc., 1967.

 

[xv] Juliann Sivulka, “Historical and Psychological Perspectives of the Erotic Appeal in Advertising,” in Sex in Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal Tom Reichert and Jacqueline Lambiase, eds. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003), p. 59.  See also: Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997) pp. 152-156.

 

[xvi] Louis C. Wagner and Janis B. Banos, “A Woman’s Place: A Follow-Up Analysis of the Roles Portrayed by Women in Magazine Advertisements,” Journal of Marketing Research Vol. X (May 1973): 213-214; Lawrence H. Wortzel and John M. Frisbie, “Women’s Role Portrayal Preferences in Advertising: An Empirical Study,” Journal of Marketing Vol. 38 (October 1974): 41-46, quote, p. 41.

 

[xvii] “Private Time” column, Glamour (Feb. 1983): 39 and 238-240. See also: “Chocolate to Sin By,” Cosmopolitan (Feb. 1970): 98-99, 147; “Valentine’s Day Delights,” Harper’s Bazaar (Feb. 1978): 63.

 

[xviii] Robert Lemme, “The Deep Dark Secrets of Chocolate,” High Times Vol. 1, no. 6 (Oct/Nov. 1975): 40 [thanks to Tom Brinkmann for showing me this article].

 

[xix] “Baci to You,” Perugina Chocolates, 1988.

 

[xx] Cover blurb from Debra Waterhouse, Why Women Need Chocolate: Eat What You Crave to Look Good & Feel Great (New York: Hyperion, 1995). 

 

[xxi] Lydia Sargent, “Feminism in the U.S. It’s the Best if Times; It’s the Worst of Times,” Z Magazine http://www.zmag.org/lydiatalk.htm [retrieved 4 Sept 2005]

 

[xxii] http://www.confectioner.com/content.php?s=CO/2004/10&p=5 [retrieved online 28 April 2005]

 

[xxiii] “About Chick,” http://www.chickchocolates.com/aboutchick.htm [retrieved 1 May 2005]. (web page no longer exists. Ed)

 

[xxiv] “Every Woman is One Part DIVA,” Godiva Chocolatier, Inc., 2004 [thanks to Sandra Krein for sending me this ad].