by The Chocolate Dictionary

Taking its name from the series of British TV ads from 1968 – 2000 in which a daredevil James Bond-type risked torrents, waterfalls, cliffs and sharks etc. to bring a lady a box of chocolates, the Milk Tray Approach is the romantic but not so innocent interpretation of chocolates: all rose petals, candlelight, Moonlight Serenade, and more than a whiff of sex. (Click here for full history of the ads.)

Although the Milk Tray Approach takes its name from Cadbury’s best selling assortment, it is so integral to our relationship with chocolates it has been used ever since they were first mass marketed. Rowntree, for example, used it to promote Black Magic in the celebrated ‘letters’ campaign that ran from the 1930s to the 1950s. Adverts depicted elegant ladies, usually in evening dress, writing about romantic encounters involving a box of “gorgeous”, “marvelous”, or even “heavenly” Black Magic. Though one lady went so far (too far?) as to write that every chocolates was “an orgy”.

“St Moritz is lovely,” another letter gushed. “Now, after a marvelous day of sports, we’re sitting in the lounge listening to the orchestra. John says I’m really making progress with my skiing, and has rewarded me with a gorgeous box of Black Magic!”.

A classic ad form the Black Magic ‘letters’ campaign. This one dates from the 1950’s and , like most of the ads, was featured in a magazine.

When the campaign had run its course, the Rowntree ads became bolder, hinting at something more daring, more sinful perhaps, in what became another classic erotic tagline: “Who knows the secret of the Black Magic box?” Indeed, who did know the secret? Was it the voodoo element alluded to in the name? Or was it in the enticing flavours, tested by extensive market research, to have the widest possible appeal?

Memorably for the advancement of the Milk Tray Approach, in the 1960s and 70s Cadbury vastly increased sales of Flake by wrapping it in phallic associations. Sultry women were depicted deriving considerable pleasure from the crumbly six-inch bar in a series of ads that epitomised what the Milk Tray Approach was about.

Model enjoying a private moment with her Flake. (image from: YouTube)

Fry’s, by now part of the Cadbury empire, promoted their pink and glistening Turkish Delight by hinting at something soft and feminine “full of Eastern promise”. Mars gave their Bounty ads a coating of innuendo by showing scantily-clad models disporting themselves on beautiful tropical beaches. They also pushed their Galaxy bar with the question, “Why have cotton when you can have silk?” Silk what? Given the context, silk lingerie of course. More recently, Hotel Chocolat were encouraging customers to “slip the blindfold over your lover’s eye”, before beginning “the seductive journey into chocolate together”.

Adherents of the Milk Tray Approach claim the distinctive Toblerone shape was inspired not by the Matterhorn, as is commonly thought, but by an erotic display performed at the Folies Bergères where Theodor Tobler, the inventor of the bar, was a frequent visitor before the First World War. Any doubts as to the veracity of the claim can be dispelled by the lushly produced adverts, created a century later, that invited us to “lose yourself in the Toblerone triangle”.

When companies such as Thorntons can sell an Eden Collection containing chocolates with names like Lust, Obsession, Temptation and Desire, and companies like Godiva are named after an icon of female nakedness, “so that the legacy may long be remembered”, are there really any doubts as to the erotic intentions inbedded in boxed chocolates?

Lust, Temptation, Obsession and Desire. And then there were the chocolates from Thorntons’ Eden Collection

The trend for web-based promotions expanded the Milk Tray Approach further.  Typical of these was the site for Mars’s Galaxy, especially the one that gave us Love at First Bite. This was an  erotically charged invitation to “give in to temptation”, to sit back and slowly unwrap the bar while admiring its “sensuous new curves”, before closing the eyes to “let the smooth creaminess” unfold in the mouth. Galaxy, we were assured, was “the big WOW” we’d all been waiting for, the one that would make us “faint with excitement”.

Paul-Loup Sulitzer, the French writer and millionaire financier, once described the chocolate experience as the most erotic thing he knew. Mars capitalized on this approach when their Galaxy ads were made the official partners of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City – all movies aimed primarily at a female audience. Mars said the ads highlighted the Galaxy bar as an indulgent female pastime “second to no other”, while also drawing on the familiar debate as to which was better – sex or chocolate? Eating chocolate, the argument goes, creates a smooth, creamy feeling in the mouth that makes women feel more feminine and sexy.  Not that this has stopped chocolate becoming emblematic for men as well, and explains why nearly half of Valentine’s Day gifts consist of something chocolatey.

Even master chocolatier Robert Linxe, the founder of La Maison du Chocolat who pioneered the elevation of chocolates to the status haute cuisine, incorporates Milk Tray elements in his pralinés and ganaches. The neat, clean lines of his chocolates, and the solid, dark brown boxes they come in, may have a sober, minimalistic aesthetic, but many of his ganaches  (Bohème Figaro, Traviata, Faust, Rigoletto, etc.) are inspired by operatic themes, and therefore wholly consistent with Milk Tray interpretations.

Ganaches from La Maison du Chocolat – sober but full of French sophistication. (image

What is it about chocolates that they should lend themselves so readily to seductive interpretation? Those at Mars would say it’s because chocolate melts at body temperature and feels so pleasurable on the palate. Others say it’s because chocolate appeals to all five senses. In truth, it’s a combination of both, plus the symbolism we give to it. Significantly, when pronouncing ‘chocolate’ the lips are pouted as if to kiss, and when eating chocolate the lips seem to curve round it like two lovers embracing. Those keen to push it further have even likened the eating of caramels and liqueurs to the sexual act itself.

With taglines such as, “Women finally get what they want” (Thorntons), “How to keep her interest rate up” (Green & Black’s), “Hand finished by Belgians” (Sainsbury’s), and “Now with extra mmm and ahh” (Cadbury),  the Milk Tray Approach has become the default mode for adverts conveying ideas of gratification.

Applied by romantics of both sexes, the Milk Tray Approach is the reason why at least 30% of men believe giving their partner a box of chocolates improves their chances of getting sex in return. In The Chocolate Box Revisited, social scientist Diane Barthel wrote that chocolate symbolises “the impending breakdown of sexual resistance”. And in Sweet Talk – The Secret History of Confectionery, Nicholas Whittaker notes that the bigger the box the bigger the expectation in return. He then gives the example of when London’s notorious Windmill Theatre closed down in 1964, shops in Soho sold out of their biggest boxes of chocolates, which were being bought as farewell gifts for the theatre’s dancing girls.

Dancers at The Windmill Theatre in 1961.

With their luxurious gold ballotins and strong branding, Godiva set their aim on the Holy Grail of chocolate boxes, the so-called “glorious gasp” or “ahhh experience” that comes from opening a box and being completely bowled over by the experience. In the words of Eugene Dunkin, a former CEO of the company, an experience “not too far from sex”.

That the Milk Tray Approach is also found literature and film reflects just how widely accepted, and acceptable, it has become. In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston and Julia consume an illicit bar of “dark and shiny” chocolate before consummating their passion. In Tabitha Flyte’s erotic novel Tongue in Cheek, two women sitting on a bed together wonder whether sharing a box of chocolates constitutes infidelity. And in the series of short stories published under the title Seduction by Chocolate, four couples discover that chocolate is the catalyst, the sorcerer, the irresistible seducer who enchants them all.

Joanne Harris’s novel Chocolat became a bestseller in 1999, and later a successful movie, for the way in which the mysterious allure of this dark substance was depicted. When a villager describes Vianne’s chocolaterie, La Praline Celeste, as having “more than a suspicion of the boudoir” about it, and when Vianne says she sells “dreams, small comforts, sweet harmless temptations to bring down the multitude of saints”, it is the Milk Tray Approach that is being conveyed.

In movies, especially costume dramas, many scenes are redolent of the soft-core eroticism of chocolate ads. Oliver Parker’s Othello has Othello and Desdemona in montages of ruffled sheets and scattered rose petals, and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is so sumptuously filled with parasols, plumes, ribbons, bows, cakes and macaroons it almost pleads to be devoured.

Marie-Antoinette luxuriating in the sumptuous aesthetic of chocolate ads.

The Milk Tray Approach includes the symbolism of chocolate packaging too. The satin ribbons, pretty bows, frilly cups and tissue layers, inhabit the same emotional hinterland as lingerie. They are the pretty clothing we are invited to undress to get to the sweetness underneath.

Cadbury’s Roses – the choice is yours. (image from: