Saturday, August 15, 2020

Sex symbol, meme, master chocolatier: We need to talk about the Lindt chocolate guy

Feb 14. 2020
The Lindt chef just might be the ideal man. Photo credit Courtesy Lindt Chocolate.
The Lindt chef just might be the ideal man. Photo credit Courtesy Lindt Chocolate.
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By The Washington Post
Emily Heil

You've seen him before, that handsome chef gazing at swirling ribbons of molten chocolate. He stares lustily from your TV screen and from the aisles of the CVS, where his visage appears on cardboard displays of colorfully wrapped truffles that crop up in the weeks ahead of Valentine's Day.

The Lindt chocolate chef might not be as iconic a mascot as, say, Mr. Peanut (RIP?) or Mr. Clean. But he's definitely a whole lot . . . steamier. He's far less complex (what's that monocle about, really?). And since it's Valentine's week, a time when corporate America demands we profess our true feelings, can I just say: The Lindt chef just might be the ideal man.

"He knows about chocolate, but it's clear he knows about other things, too," says Alixandra Barasch, a professor of marketing for New York University's Stern School of Business, whom we enlisted to help break down the chef's appeal. The chef is always portrayed as conventionally attractive, she noted, but she pointed to his laugh lines and graying temples. Women, she notes, often value other qualities above looks, and this guy? Well, he's been around the block, and he's accomplished to boot. "You don't get to have status and intelligence without age - that's a signal," Barasch says. "He's not some young chef who's the assistant. He's the head chef."

And here's where I should note something about these commercials that deviates from the usual. These are advertisements made for women. They reverse the male gaze that shapes so much marketing, portraying the male chef as the object of desire - along with that chocolate, of course. But that's not his only appeal. We'll unpack that further, but let's just go over what we know or think we know about the Lindt chef.

Just as various mammals have assumed the on-screen roles of James Bond or Lassie over the years, multiple actors have portrayed the chef in the 15-plus years that Swiss-based Lindt has used him in ads. The most recent iteration is perhaps the most famous. He has become a meme on social media, his intense stare - usually fixed on a whisk dripping with chocolate or a bar of the confection - inspiring captions that are both admiring and snarky. "Find you a man who looks at you the way the Lindt chocolate guy looks at Lindt chocolate," is a typical one. "Yep," reads another under a chef closely inspecting the goods. "It's chocolate."

The Lindt chocolate company was a bit coy about sharing information related to its marketing campaigns. A representative for the company, though, did respond to our queries about the character in an email that offered a gentle correction - he's not a "chef," he's a "master chocolatier."

"Our 'Master Chocolatier' is our most important asset and famously represents our passionate craftsmanship for chocolate making [for] decades," she wrote. The character in the ads is based on real-life, multiple master chocolatiers the company employs who "mostly work in our R & D departments, working hands-on to develop new recipes for our chocolate," she informed us.

A peek at the company's lineup of chefs-whites-clad chocolate wizards reveals that some are women - and none (sorry) are the model-handsome guys featured in the ads.

The company feels so strongly about its mascot that in 2015 it complained to South African regulators that rival chocolatier Ferrero Rocher was imitating its advertising by portraying its own whisk-wielding dudes. Among its evidence that the competitor was ripping off its image? Ferrero Rocher's chef also wore a double-breasted white jacket and a gold-embossed hat. The officials disagreed, ruling that "no single proprietor can claim exclusive rights to the use of the image of a chef."

But the Lindt chocolatier does stand out. As one of my colleagues put it, "he's like the Fabio of chocolate." Only he doesn't have to bare his chest to get attention - he just twirls that golden whisk. And he never says a word; the TV commercials are narrated by a purring off-screen female voice, like the one I saw the other night in which he's called "a man with the power to make any woman melt."

So what does a man with such powers sound like? And what does he have to say, anyway? We identified the man who appears in the most recent ads - the one you're most likely to see right now if you're picking up a last-minute Valentine - as Berlin-based actor Robert Seeliger (who some social media wags think looks a lot like Ben Stiller?). We emailed his agent for an interview. We slid into his DMs. There was no response, so we'll just have to keep imagining - which is probably the point.

The ads are intended as female fantasy, notes Brooke Erin Duffy, a Cornell University professor who studies media, marketing and gender, though she thinks they show a stereotypical - and restrictive - idea of what women want. "Of course, the ad plays with the notion of female lust by making it unclear whether the object of her desire is the man or the chocolate," she said.

They reminded her of the Oikos Greek yogurt ads a few years back in which actor John Stamos was the conventionally sexy pitchman, "which presents a well-worn myth about female fantasies, namely that the object of them is limited to celebrities and food."

Still, the Lindt man has a lot going for him. Barasch notes that he doesn't play the role so often assigned to men in advertising: the romantic partner. "He's not your husband buying you the chocolate," she says.

In fact, he never appears in any context other than his kitchen - all of which just might be a huge part of his appeal. As one friend noted, "He's this guy who makes you chocolate and you literally don't have to put up with him."

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