Monday, March 29, 2010

A Chocolate World Seems Nice...

We pulled into the parking lot of Hershey’s Chocolate World. We had been selling the idea big to the kids about how exciting the place would be. It was the only major sight between New York and our spring break destination in Virginia, a house along the Blue Ridge Parkway our friends had bid on in an auction at our urging.

We walked up to the enormous structure with the strong waft of manure strong in our noses reminding us that mostly what Hershey makes is milk chocolate, the milk taken from the many cows we had seen along the way on our route through Pennsylvania.

People streamed in. We weren’t alone in hoping to find a way to amuse the children en route. Apparently, in high season, in the summer, as many as 22,000 a day visit the tourist/marketing site. Today, I was told, it would be more like two or three thousand. Still a lot of people come to see the way candy is made and get the chance to buy some.

We started out with lunch in the food court, a beautiful tree-filled, indoor atrium that astounded Eli. “How did they get these in here?” He wondered, staring up at the tall palms. “What do they do when they grow too tall?”

His brother had another question, looking around at all the branded items, the Hershey World. He shook his head. “Why are they doing all this?” he said curiously, narrowing his eyes. I had to laugh. It was a great question.

“Well,” I said, “I think the point is to make people happy. Then, of course, they want to make money…”

As we started on our tour, I sought to find answers to Oscar’s question as much as the kids looked to find answers to the questions on the scavenger hunt list they’d been given. The timeline of the history of Hershey founder Milton Hershey, born in 1857, was broken into three sections: Builds a Chocolate Business, Builds a Town and Builds a Legacy.

Apparently, Mr. Hershey started a business that failed after six years but then he tried again. Hard work and perseverance paid off and he built a successful caramel company that he later sold for $1 million, money he used to build a milk chocolate factory back in his native Pennsylvania, around which he built a town for the workers with the best interest of their families in mind, with schools and a community pool, everything necessary and even some things that weren’t.

With the $60 million he amassed from that milk chocolate, Mr. Hershey and his wife, childless, endowed a school for orphaned boys, The Milton Hershey School, in 1918. By 1963, Mr. Hershey had amassed another $50 million that he poured into a medical school and teaching hospital at Penn State.

I shook my head as I took notes. I wrote about Hershey for so long as a packaged goods reporter for Ad Age. My brain was filled with conflicting thoughts as it always had been when I reported out a story. There is nothing inherently bad about chocolate, about many decadent foods. It is only our abuse of them that is a problem. But that abuse builds big businesses, the money from which is then used, often to do good things, to build healthcare facilities that have to help solve the problems we create with the over-indulgence of certain foods. It is a conundrum, one Mr. Hershey likely did not foresee. Success, I think, brings with it unintended consequences. We do not control what other people do with what we create, but there is a sense of responsibility we must have in marketing things to people in ways they might misconstrue.

Take, for example, the ride around the sample chocolate factory. We loaded into the little car and were carried through past singing cows and flowing chocolate rivers as we were shown how cocoa blended with sugar and milk to make chocolate. “Milk gives Hershey its added nutritional value,” a voice said over our heads at one point. A digital counter showed the production numbers, offering up that by 1:20, there had been 25, 715 Hershey bars produced. Lots of “nutrition.” As the ride came to an end, the voice offered up the same answer to Oscar that I had given, the point of the place:

“Bringing happiness to you is what we’re all about,” it said in conclusion.
Yes, happiness. We were given a sample of new mint Hershey’s Pieces, which we ate a few of before we felt sick. We walked around, admiring the plush Kisses and Peppermint Pattie people and the oversized candy bars, including one enormous bar a bunch of boys were buying to eat together. Fun. Also more than a little disgusting. We bought some Twizzlers, some Good & Plenty (my personal fave) and some Hershey Bars, slightly oversized, for s’mores at the house.

In line for the 3D movie, we got into a conversation with some locals about how candy bars in vending machines are getting bigger. I weighed in with information from a friend about how diabetes doctors offer soda in their vending machines. One guy laughed.

“It’s called job security…” he said.

I sighed. All Milton Hershey wanted to do was bring happiness. He did a good job. He made money. He hired a lot of people. He wanted to help them keep their jobs, feed their families. To do so required selling more chocolate. They got good at that, figured out how to get people to want more. People ate too much. They got fat. More money was made, healthcare was required. Mr. Hershey’s money went to fund that. Oh, what a tangled web we weave. No doubt everyone’s trying. But we need to do better. We need to try harder.

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