The secrets behind advertising chocolate to women and why it's about to change forever

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Words: Phil Hilton

Chocolate has always been sold in a very genderspecific way. Think about the woman in the silk pyjamas. You know her, she’s a stock character from TV adverts. She lounges in silk pyjamas enjoying a confectionary moment. She’s changed into the pyjamas specifically to set the scene for the snack, too sensual to be restricted by ordinary clothes. She is alone. Her hands hold the chocolate as you might a fragile, ancient artefact. When she bites (she’s wearing lipstick, although alone and in pyjamas), the pleasure is so intense her eyes close, almost as if… well, you know. Now, try to imagine a man pulling on loose jim jams to relish a Yorkie.

With Christmas looming, some of the most well-funded and sophisticated food manufacturers in the world will be attempting to attract your attention. The extent to which this is a gendered effort this year will be interesting. For decades, chocolate has been sold as a woman’s pleasure, and a man’s fuel – he bites off chunks in a busy working day, she changes into something more comfortable for a secret retreat from the world’s pressures, belts, shoes, etc. But now the industry is changing. Under attack from the sugar lobby, it’s adapting to social trends and shifting gender roles.

Men giving chocolate as a gift to a wife or lover was already well established in Victorian times, but today men eat roughly the same amount of chocolate as women and yet so many products are still designated “female”.

Although there is a growing connoisseur market for those who want their chorizo-flavoured bars made from ancient Inca beans, the real action is in the popular chocolate sector – with multimillion-pound advertising campaigns and an understanding of consumer behaviour that borders on the uncanny.

But is there really a special relationship between chocolate and women? According to food psychologist Dr Christy Fergusson, there are special chemical effects created by chocolate that work more powerfully for women. “At certain times of the month, women lack magnesium,” she explains. “We need magnesium and essential fats so our brain seeks it out during the menstrual cycle. Chocolate has compounds that almost create a physical effect – phenylethylamine, known as the love drug, is just one.

There’s caffeine, there’s a whole range of chemicals that give us a little boost of feel-good in our neurotransmitters, leaving you happy and blissed out. It also has dairy, which contains casomorphin, which has an opium-like effect on our gut.”

This chemistry of pleasure and hormonal need may be the seed of truth behind silk pyjamas woman and her iconic predecessor, Cadbury’s Flake girl. Cadbury’s spokesman Tony Bilsborough reminds us that, although much loved by men, the Flake ads were created to appeal to women, “creating that sensual moment where the rest of the world can go to hell”.

They were made by ad guru Dave Trott who invented scenarios in which the woman escapes for selfish pleasure. “When we worked on the Cadbury’s Flake ads, the comparison was with an orgasm,” he says. “So the young woman locks herself away or goes somewhere where she won’t be interrupted – lush green field,
the bath, ignoring a phone call. Nothing is allowed to interrupt that delicious, orgasmic moment of self indulgence.” Whether an empowering image of a woman placing herself first, or a dated picture in which pleasures are stolen, shameful and private, either way it was one of the most memorable and successful campaigns in advertising history.

Laura Tan of advertising and design experts Brand Union says chocolate has traditionally been sold to women as intrinsically feminine. “Often what women are wearing represents the Chocolate Self – the woman in silk pyjamas, for instance,” she says. “We assign gender attributes to a product and this is intended not only to appeal to women, but also to men as a way of accessing women. The Milk Tray ads were the ultimate embodiment of that: women are sensual, chocolate is sensual, give woman chocolate, have access to woman.”

The lady loves

Gender informs every aspect of development – just look at the reasons behind Cadbury altering its classic Dairy Milk bar in 2012. Tony Bilsborough says: “We changed the shape of the six-chunk standard bar. It had those big thick chunks that had been around since the Seventies – we made it more wavy and curved. One of the reasons for the change is that it’s more feminine. When you put the old chunks in your mouth, they were quite angular and blocky – the feedback we were getting from men was that they didn’t mind, but the feedback from women was that they liked smoother contours. Smoother contours melt in the mouth more easily.”

The company found themselves in dispute with fans so disturbed that they imagined there’d been a change of recipe as well as shape. Questions were asked on Mumsnet about an attack on an iconic product that had been part of their lives since childhood.

This is one of the many oddities of women’s relationship with chocolate. It is an industrial food – it is almost impossible for a home enthusiast to make chocolate from beans and most chocolate recipes start with purchased chocolate. But despite being made by some of the world’s largest corporations – Cadbury is now owned by the Kraft Foods empire – favourite brands are still associated with a time of innocence, with mothers, with treats after school.

No-one feels this way about clothes, or shampoo. Mumsnet doesn’t light up when a toothpaste adjusts its format. Chocolate is an emotional issue. And the manufacturers go to huge lengths to preserve these bonds.

Bilsborough says: “Purchasing decisions are made in seconds and that means you need to trust that brand. So you see the purple, you see the Cadbury curly C and you know it’s going to deliver the same taste you had this year, last year, when you were a child, and that trust is so important. If someone tries to use our purple or our curly C, we will take action – nothing nice and cuddly about it, we protect those logos very aggressively.”

Colour is used to suggest the character of the brand as well as the manufacturer. Tan explains how eye-movement tracking glasses are used to check how consumers subconsciously use colour to navigate a crowded shelf.

“We do a lot of analysis, taking pictures of shelves from different distances. At 10 metres all you see is colour. Chocolate marketed towards women falls into two categories – pastel colours that suggest a sense of lightness and a low-calorie/ guilt-free treat, with purple and pinks coming up often. And dark, rich colours like brown, black and burgundy that represent indulgence. This is a shift away from chocolate for men such as Yorkie, with its strong and jarring blue and orange combination or children’s chocolates, with their bright colour clashes.”

The food giants innovate within the character of each brand so there are surprises but never any shocks. During testing, they not only check that new variants of Maltesers – solid bars, Easter bunnies – taste right but also that they fit with our understanding of the brand personality.

Then there are the many, many sizes in which chocolate is available. What other product comes in slivers, luxury boxes, huge multi-packs, heavy slabs, balls, buttons and, of course, recently rounded chunks? The Maltesers range has more than 10 variants of the same product. This reflects the varied roles chocolate plays in our lives and the frankly weird ways we consume it.

Guilty pleasure

At the Stylist office, the team have been known to buy Freddos at around 4pm. This is an act of subversion – the Freddo; a tiny bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in the shape of a frog – is small so as to fit the mouths of children. Here it is repurposed to fit the intricate adult internal dialogue of food-guilt versus pleasure. The Freddo is so small, you can almost tell yourself it didn’t happen. It turns out, inevitably, that Cadbury is aware of this and, far from being unusual, women buy children’s treats in huge numbers.Around 9O% of Curly Wurly and Chomp bars are eaten by adults and of those adults eating kids brands, 70% are women.

So for office rituals, quasisexual private moments, collective TV viewing, present gifting and outright indulgence, chocolate is there for you in just the right shape and quantity. The makers track social trends to ensure that they have just the size for your state of mind.

The growth of sharing bags, for example, is a direct response to the retreat into the home during times of economic hardship. Tan feels that the Chocolate Self may finally have to move on from solitary silk pyjama-time:

“It’s an odd image of what women should be doing. We’d rather go to yoga than eat chocolate in our pyjamas.”

The latest launch from Cadbury, an unlikely joining of Ritz Crackers and Dairy Milk, was partly created for a female market. “By and large, women do not eat the same weight of chocolate as men,” says Bilsborough. “That might be because they have better self-control or because they’re looking for a smaller treat, but typically they look for a lighter product. That’s where that launch came from.”

But the ads for the Ritz chocolate feature a dancing passport controller in Cadbury purple shoes (pictured above). They are intended to entertain women, but no longer present them freed from chores, enjoying solo pleasure.

Tan tells us that the next challenge for chocolate is letting people take charge of their sugar consumption. Now that sugar has replaced fat as the big dietary evil, women want permission to enjoy treat foods. How much is OK? We asked a number of experts how much chocolate a 5’6”, 10-stone, active woman could happily eat, but no-one could offer an authoritative answer. So what chance do consumers have?

Tan says: “We are working with brands to make people feel empowered, with human measures to explain portion size. Why doesn’t a chocolate bar partner with someone like the Nike Fuel Band so people can calculate how much chocolate they can eat?”

So, one of the most pleasurable, inexpensive, guilt-laden, fetishised, confusing food stuffs on Earth is adapting to the 21st century. For years, it’s been lurking in drawers, chilling in fridges, wrapped, nibbled, put away, retrieved, unwrapped, nibbled again. Now it appears that the modern woman will be stretching down from a run, tapping her calorie burn into a spreadsheet before finally unwrapping a guilt-free bar… and with no need at all for luxury night-clothes.

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Stylist Team