Cadbury’s Whitewashing of Chocolate Production in Advertising

Originally Published in The Times, May 18th 1907

Originally Published in The Times, May 18th 1907

Note: This was a piece I wrote for HIST 5804 taught by Audra Diptee at Carleton University. We were required to write a 15 to 20 page paper, and than write a 750 to 1000 word blog post on the same topic. This is mine. Copies of the longer paper are avaliable upon request.

In a season four episode of the television series Mad Men (a long running, fictionalized show about advertising in the 1960s), one character tells another to “change the conversation” when discussing a potential marketing problem. Much advertising and marketing revolves around ‘changing’ or ‘controlling’ the way a company and their products might be perceived. For example, many companies and corporations use advertising and marketing to draw attention from their unethical uses of labour and resources in the global south. The Cadbury’s chocolate and candy company, for instance, has used advertising and marketing in the past to draw attention away from their involvement in the child labour and slavery used in the West African cocoa farming industry.

For example, in 1900 the Cadbury brothers sourced over fifty-five percent of its cocoa from the Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe. Early on in the decade, Cadbury’s found out the majority of this cocoa came from slave plantations.[1] The company chose to ignore this because they felt that the cocoa’s quality was worth the cost of using slave labour, even though slavery went against the company’s Quaker values.[2] However, the British public and press soon afterwards found out about Cadbury’s continued use of São Tomé and Príncipe cocoa, and were critical of the company. By 1910, Cadbury’s had moved their operations to Ghana and were leading a British boycott against São Tomé and Príncipe cocoa. At the same time, they were using advertising to distract Western consumers from the fact that they had been using cocoa picked by slave labour for so many years.

One of the ways they did this was to completely remove black Africans from their advertising. Prior to 1910, Cadbury’s, along with many other British chocolate companies, featured black Africans in the role of subservient producers of chocolate to white British consumers of chocolate.[3] In many cases, by the 1900s, both these roles in advertising were played by children. This coincided with a push by chocolate companies to expand their consumer base beyond upper-class white women. Chocolate started to be promoted as a healthy drink to build up the strength of white middle-class children, or as a present to give children. Meanwhile, black African children were shown to be happy ‘carefree’ workers in these advertisements. However, with growing concern about the ethics of the chocolate industry, the use of black African children as producers also disappeared. As Anandi. Ramamurthy noted in her book Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising, the “images which predominate” were “of those sugary sweet white boys or girls”.[4] Arguably, black African producers disappeared from these advertisements at this time to avoid attracting white Western consumer attention to the slavery used in the cocoa industry.

Another way Cadbury’s used advertising to distract from their use of cocoa produced by slave labour was to suggest that their products came exclusively from Britain. Even early on in the 1900s, they promoted their use of British milk in their milk chocolate. One advertisement from 1907 suggested that Cadbury’s cocoa mix was a gift from Britain to the rest of their empire, including countries in Africa. Also, by 1909 and 1910 they started to market their cocoa and chocolate on the name of their Birmingham factory Bourneville. As the factory had existed since the 1870s, it seems odd that they would suddenly market their chocolate on the basis of the factory located in Britain.

Speaking of Bourneville, Cadbury’s also distracted from the negative attention they had received for using slave labour, by focusing on how well they treated their white British employers who worked at Bourneville. In several 1910 advertisements, they touted their recreation grounds, large windows that let in natural light, and testing grounds as providing a safe and healthy environment for their workers, which in turn led to the production of the best possible cocoa drink mix, or solid chocolate. The sudden focus on the treatment of Cadbury’s white British employees suggests that this too was a ploy to distract from slavery on São Tomé and Príncipe plantations.

While the São Tomé and Príncipe controversy has largely faded from public memory, Cadbury’s has continued to use the same advertising and marketing techniques to promote their products. For example, while Cadbury’s advertisements have largely not featured black consumers of chocolate, many recent advertisements produced after Cadbury’s decision to use fair trade cocoa in their hot drink mixes and milk chocolate have featured black African producers of cocoa, often relying on the same ‘sambo’ stereotypes used in the 1900s advertisements.[5] Also, Cadbury’s has hidden their use of slave labour and child labour in their official histories. The official history on their website does not mention São Tomé and Príncipe at all, and only mentions cocoa picking in the section that details their choice to start using Fair Trade cocoa.[6] Additionally, their claims to use Fair Trade cocoa has been critiqued by some people as merely marketing because they only talk about how many tonnes of chocolate they buy rather than the percentage of cocoa they use.[7]

Consumers need to inform themselves on the politics and policies of companies in order to not be as taken in by their attempts to obscure their histories of unethical practices. In some cases, consumers can positively impact these politics and policies. For instance, consumers convinced the makers of the chocolate sold at Harry Potter theme parks to start using Fair Trade sourced cocoa in 2015.[8] Hopefully with the advancement of more affordable mobile recording devices, cocoa farmers in Ghana and other places can use this technology to ‘control the conversation’ instead of companies like Cadbury’s. In the meantime, consumers in the West should stay vigilant against chocolate makers’ attempts to distract from issues around cocoa sourcing in their advertisements.

Additional Resources

Youtube playlist of advertisements.

Pinterist board of 1900 to 1910 advertisements.

Sources Consulted

“Cadbury Bournville sob.” YouTube video, 0:52. posted by “Mondelez International.” September 25, 2014.

“How Fair is Fairtrade Chocolate?” Chocablog. March 1, 2013:

“New Cadbury advert.” YouTube video, 4:57. posted by “Birmingham Mail.” September 19, 2009.

Brown, Kat. “Harry Potter fans win four-year fight for Fair Trade chocolate frogs.” Telegraph. January 14, 2015:

Cadbury. “The History of Chocolate.” accessed February 20th, 2016,

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012.

Ramamurthy, Anandi. Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.


[1] Catherine Higgs, Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012), 8.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Anandi. Ramamurthy, Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 63-64.

[4] Ibid., 91.

[5] “New Cadbury advert,” YouTube video, 4:57, posted by “Birmingham Mail,” September 19, 2009,; “Cadbury Bournville sob,” YouTube video, 0:52, posted by “Mondelez International,” September 25, 2014,

[6] Cadbury, “The History of Chocolate,” accessed March 18th, 2016,

[7] “How Fair is Fairtrade Chocolate?” Chocablog, March 1, 2013:

[8] Kat Brown, “Harry Potter fans win four-year fight for Fair Trade chocolate frogs,” Telegraph, January 14, 2015:

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