When Cadbury Milk Tray was launched in 1915, astute marketing strategy lay at the heart of the product. Although boxes of chocolates had been produced by the company since the 1860’s, what made this new chocolate selection so popular was that it was smaller, making it affordable enough to be a regular treat.
The name ‘Milk Tray’ originated from both plain and milk sweets being put out in trays to sell to customers. By the mid-1930’s, Milk Tray selection proved to be one of Cadbury’s best selling lines, being consistently improved upon. For instance, in 1961, packaging was made more sophisticated while in 1971, a William Morris style pack was introduced. Almost one hundred years since it first appeared, Milk Tray is one of the longest running brands in the confectioner’s portfolio.

Perhaps the most memorable elements associated with Milk Tray chocolates are the 19 television advertisements, from 1969 to 2003, which featured The Milk Tray Man. This larger than life character summed up the ideal attributes of a suave, handsome hero: total focus on getting the chocolates to the lady of the hour, a complete disregard in the face of adversity for personal safety and a devil may care approach to overcoming daunting obstacles.

The Milk Tray Man knew, as ancient civilisations did,  that what was beautifully packaged in a l lb box of delight, lay at the very heart of  myth and legend. Chocolate was deemed to be the food of the gods in the lore of ancient civilisations and was so prized by the Aztecs, it was used as money. Cortez the explorer took it to Spain where the nobility used it as medicine.

These Milk Tray advertisements however, struck at the heart of modern romantic mini dramas. They were action packed sequences, full of danger laden ‘raids’, daring engagements with trains, speedboats, explosives and raging conflagrations…they were like James Bond movies in scaled down version and hugely enjoyable. Women all over the country wanted to be the recipient of the anonymous calling card left by the dashing Milk Tray Man. It was perceived to be the height of romantic glamour, this ability to attract a superhero who was prepared to risk life and limb “all because the lady loves Milk Tray.’

Who knows what John Cadbury might have thought about this slick advertising campaign? The founding father of the Cadbury success story was a trader who opened a grocer’s shop at 93 Bull Street, Birmingham in 1824. Among the items he sold were cocoa and drinking chocolate, which he prepared himself using a pestle and mortar. As a Quaker, he wanted to offer a delicious and healthy alternative to alcohol. By 1842, he was selling 16 varieties of drinking chocolate and 11 different cocoas which could be bought in the form of pressed cakes and powder.

The Cadbury story is one of expansion and innovation. In 1861, John’s health declined and he handed over control of his business to sons Richard and George, 25 and 21 respectively. The turning point for the Cadbury Empire was the introduction of a new processing technique, resulting in the 1866 launch of ‘Cadbury Cocoa Essence’, the UK’s first unadulterated cocoa.

By the time of the initial 1978 Milk Tray commercial (produced by Ad Agency Leo Burnett), Cadbury  had built its first Irish factory (Ossory Road, Dublin, 1933) followed by its chocolate crumb factory (Rathmore, Co Kerry, 1948) and in 1964, Coolock, a suburb of Dublin(officially opened by Seán Lemass, then Taoiseach).
The most recognisable ‘man in black’ (as the Milk Tray Man was also known) was actor Gary Myers who starred in 11 of the advertisements. James Coombes took over the role in 1987. The last official Milk Tray Man was Kidderminster born actor Alan Riley. The final celluloid adventure featured Riley jumping from a cliff top into the sea  ( performed by veteran stuntman Alf Joint). The music score, The Night Rider, was written by Cliff Adams, who also wrote the music for Fry’s Turkish Delight promotions.

Over the years, Cadbury Chocolates have left their mark in terms of impact, sometimes from the most unlikeliest sources. In 1920, the ‘crumbliest flakiest chocolate’ was developed, based on an observation by an astute Cadbury employee. It was noticed that when the excess from chocolate moulds drained off, it fell in a stream and created flaky, folded chocolate. 1928 saw the ‘Glass and a Half’ symbol being introduced, a symbol which has become the face of the company in recent years.

However, in popular memory, the escapades of the Milk Tray Man endure. If these advertisements were being made today, the digital age would possibly render them even more fantastic, facilitating perhaps a trip by the man in black to the moon or to the lost city of Atlantis…all because the lady loves…