Chocolate and childhood in the North

Catherine Phipps, March 2010

Once upon a time, the notion of childhood didn’t really exist. Children were seen as young adults and expected to behave accordingly. They were either part of the workforce, with industrialisation sending the working class child down the mines or into the factories, whilst the middle and upper classes were either being clerked out, or away at school from ridiculously early ages, learning everything necessary to run country and Empire.

This eventually changed; legislation throughout the nineteenth century moved steadily towards implementing mandatory education for all and abolishing child labour. With this began the dual romanticisation and commodification of childhood, with companies latching onto a pastoral and innocent ideal of childhood in their advertising campaigns.

It’s clear from advertising from the latter part of the nineteenth century that whether the companies like to admit it or not, children were a major target audience for chocolate. The industrialisation of chocolate production meant that it could be made cheaply available to the masses, and this, coupled with innovatory methods, meant that the chocolate manufacturers were able to make very child-friendly products.

An example of this is Cadbury in 1905 launching their milk chocolate Easter eggs. Although they'd had several other lines of dark chocolate Easter eggs since the 1870s, it was the milk chocolate eggs which really took off, finally manifesting in the ubiquitous Crème Egg. By the 1920s, Fry (who had merged with Cadbury in 1919) were doing over 50 lines, including chocolate animals, precursors of the chocolate Easter bunny so popular with children today.

The commercialisation of other festivals followed through the twentieth century. Advent calendars have been in existence since the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s when they first became chocolate-filled. In the 1800s, America latched on to the imported Irish tradition of Hallowe’en with gusto, with sales of chocolate for that holiday alone now worth in excess of $2bn, much of which finds its way into the mouths of children.

The link between chocolate and children has become so strong that at times it has been seen as a right rather than a luxury. For example in 1947, Canadian children, outraged at the rising price of chocolate (reasonable due to the fact that the price had been artificially low, and the cost of raw materials and labour had risen substantially) took to the streets in support of a “Chocolate Crusade” in an attempt to get the manufacturers to capitulate.

The crusade initially had a lot of support, due to the fact that people were unhappy about inflation but felt it was unpatriotic to express dissatisfaction. But eventually a zeitgeist fear that the crusade was a cloak for spreading communism put a stop to it. It seems incredible today that children would support such a thing – many of them are so clued up, they would be more concerned with exploitation occurring amongst the cocoa producers rather than the prices they and their parents are having to pay.

There have, of course, been many marketing campaigns geared at children throughout the twentieth century. Back to Cadbury again – they had a “Cococubs club” in the 1930s, comprising enamel pins modelled on Beatrix Potter characters. Chocolate frequently features in film tie ins, such as the apt Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Harry Potter franchise, which all bring products to the attention of children.

Although all of these forms of advertising are controversial, some are much more so, such as a £9m campaign encouraging children to buy chocolate to get vouchers for school sports equipment which landed Cadbury in trouble a few years ago.

The specific targeting of children is now seen as exploitative and immoral, at both ends of the supply chain! In the North, companies are now scrutinised over their advertising practices and campaigns in order to combat the rising problems of obesity and the increasingly unhealthy nature of children's diets.

This is perfectly understandable, but where does it leave a chocolate company that has put education – indeed, social change – at the centre of its promotional activities? Divine Chocolate have their Dubble chocolate bar, aimed at children and teenagers, and used to teach and raise awareness about cocoa farming and the Fairtrade model. Cadbury have followed suit by putting many educational materials on their website.

Should we take the view that this kind of advertising is acceptable? The thought of our children marching to complain about the rising prices of their chocolate is inconceivable today, but it is less far fetched to imagine them campaigning about Fairtrade issues.

Perhaps it is chocolate's strong association with childhood, brought about through its advertising, which has made the issue of child labour in Africa such an emotive one - now our own children are becoming aware of the way in which children have been exploited to make their favourite chocolate bars. By building this children's market, have the chocolate companies also sown the seeds of major challenges against their less moral activities?

Catherine Phipps writes for the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog.