Posted by: penne22m | December 1, 2018

The Cocoa Childhood

When reading Lori Anne Loeb’s Consuming Women: Advertising and Victorian Women chapters 1 and 2 the images that struck me as most fascinating were the cocoa ads. Specifically, I was curious as to why these advertisements for cocoa seemed to be targeting and focused on children. Loeb speaks to the generational power structure and the female gendering of these advertisements but I still had the burning question: why did these advertisements paint chocolate as a “health” food of “purity” and why the focus on kids? How did these early advertisements to children effect future marketing strategies?

The first order of business I set out to explore was the “healthy chocolate” issue. These Victorian advertisements do many smart things: first as Loeb points out they feature little girls. This commercialized image of the pure and well-behaved child plays to the Victorian ideal. They even push “purity” further by claiming the cocoa is the purest thing you could give your children. Turns out, while these images were being circulated in Europe, Hershey’s was doing similar things around the same time in the US. In fact from 1912- 1926 the Hershey’s chocolate bar wrapper had the claim “more sustaining than meat” printed right on the label!

Bar wrapper for Hershey's Milk Chocolate bar. ca. 1912-1926

So why this effort to convince families that cocoa was healthy and nourishing for children? One theory is that it was a strategy of hooking the consumer, in this case children. Hooking them while they’re young (as they say), pushing the idea of consuming this product as being an integral and nourishing part of their day. This way not only does it become commonplace, like drinking a glass of milk, but also addictive. The sweetness of the chocolate in combination with the habit of consumption has just created a lifelong consumer. Now this is when we begin to see an experimental shift in marketing directly to children, instead of solely adults.


Flash forward to modern day: marketing to children is everywhere. And the chocolate industry is still at the forefront of this strategy. Take for example, the M&M. Have you seen an M&M commercial? They are literally giant talking cartoon chocolates. I did a science experiment in elementary school about the dangers of children mistaking medicine for candy. I rounded up all the neighborhood kids (with parental permission) and gave them two options, asking them to identify which was candy and which was medicine. Every single participant (in this revolutionary and well-conducted by an 11 year old me experiment) confused the chocolate laxatives for regular chocolate. When I revealed to them that the chocolate imposter was medicine, one boy said something that I thought was strange at the time, but that came rushing back to me upon viewing these Victorian advertisements. He told me, “my mom says chocolate is healthy, she eats a square every night after dinner and lets me have my own… so it if it’s healthy isn’t it medicine?” Needless to say, I didn’t know how to answer him at 11. And I am aware of the health benefits of certain chocolate. But I am also aware now of the complicated history of cocoa advertisements and children, going all the way back to the Victorian era. And, now I am craving some chocolate.


Loeb, Lori Anne, Consuming Women: Advertising and Victorian Women.


  1. This talk of children in advertising couldn’t help but make me think on all the Black Friday adverts from the last few weeks; so many of those display familial hordes rushing to get their holiday shopping done as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is off the table, and hover around that idea of the shopping experience (not even the gift giving that comes later and could otherwise be implied by all the many goods being purchased), the spending of money on things you might not consider buying any other day of the year, begins young. There were many that I’m sure we all saw over the course of the Thanksgiving break, but one which stuck for sheer ridiculousness doesn’t include children at all. Instead, the Best Buy commercial of a father looking for last minute presents chooses to have the adults (the father and the Best Buy employee) reenact dramatic reactions of children upon receiving their new devices. I am intrigued by this one I think especially because the ad relies on the viewer to do most of the work for them – it is never said that the father is shopping for his children, but the reactions as delivered tell us both who the children are and what it is they value. It is astonishing that we need so little to understand what a store wants to get from their advertisements, and so much of that is a certain conditioning by the advertisements themselves; we know what we should expect, say, when we see a lone man entering a Best Buy on Black Friday, and we know how we are intended to react. We know we need to be like that father, we need to go out and buy amazing things from Best Buy. And we sure as heck want to be those undefined children behind the screen.

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