Santa is all about Coke. No joke.
Fat and jolly Santa with the red suit and cap, thick black belt, sooty
boots, rosy cheeks, luminous eyes and brighter-than-white teeth is the
product of a genius advertising campaign created by Coca-Cola in the 1930s.
Now, before you go off in a huff and hide this
article from Santa-believers, please keep in mind that it's no secret our
revered Claus is corporate-sponsored. Coca-Cola remains out of the closet
about its role in popularizing Santa. The company is so proud that it has
documented the creation of the Coca-Cola Santa in a gallery exhibition
called "Advertising As Art," which ran at the Louvre in 1996.
In the late 19th century, when Coca-Cola first
started selling Coke, the beverage was touted as a tonic. The company promoted
the featured ingredient of cocaine, or coca bean extract, which it said
guaranteed a renewed self--one with greater agility and acuity. Coca-Cola
paid pharmacists a commission for the sale of this medicinal beverage if
drug stores allowed Coca-Cola to install a carbonation
tap on the premises.
In the 1930s, Coca-Cola needed to re-evaluate
its business prospects and consider how it was going to survive the Depression.
The more controversial aspects of the beverage had been resolved (as early
as 1903, coca extract was removed and caffeine took its place). Beverage
sales were slowing down--especially in the winter months.
In 1931 Coca-Cola expanded its target audience
from the adult who lacked pep to all family members who required cheer
and joy. Coca-Cola was a great taste to be enjoyed by everyone! The company
decided to launch an extensive advertising campaign to demonstrate its
new appeal. Pioneering the use of well-known artists to design ad campaigns,
Coke blitzed pharmacies and stores with promotional material.
The illustrations by one artist in particular,
Haddon Sundblom of Sweden, took off. He portrayed Santa as a portly white
man in a red suit bringing joy to families and friends simply with a bottle
of Coke. It's this version that we now see in shopping malls, greeting
cards, commercials and Salvation Army booths around the country.
But Coca-Cola cannot be fully credited for
bringing Santa into the homes and hearts of Americans. The history of Santa
Claus, the mystery gift-giver, goes back well before the time of the Coca-Cola
company. In previous incarnations, Santa wore no red suit. Santa's varied
cultural roots include the fourth-century bishop of Asia Minor; a Scandinavian
dwarf or goat; the white-robed Kolyada, a pre-revolutionary Russian girl
who arrived atop a sleigh with accompanying carolers; and the many religious
gift-bearers associated with the Magi.
In each of these Old World depictions of Santa,
his costume bears no stain of red. In the United States, the Dutch were
primarily responsible for spreading the idea of Sante Klaas, who was based
on one of their revered bishops. Sante Klaas gave form to the current myth
of Santa and fleshed out his reputation as a gift-giver. However, the visual
image was not honed until much later, when Coca-Cola created its Santa.
In 1822, an American professor, Dr. Clement
Clarke Moore, wrote The Visit of St. Nicholas, which is known today as
the The Night Before Christmas. His description of Santa suggests a fat
man, but in the gnomish fashion of the earlier European versions. The poem
reads: "His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!/His cheeks were
like roses, his nose like a cherry/His droll little mouth was drawn up
like a bow/And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.../He had
a broad face, a little round belly/That shook when he laughed, like a bowl
of jelly./He was chubby and plump, a right jolly elf...."
Nearly 40 years later, political cartoonist
Thomas Nast drew St. Nicholas for Harper's Illustrated Weekly. This version
wears a woolly, furry suit and resembles a stout, bearded elf; the Sundblom
look is not apparent. Nast often created etchings in black and white featuring
elements that presaged the Coke Santa (i.e., the belted suit). However,
in Nast's color renditions, Santa vaguely mirrors the modern, commercial
image--except the bright-red color is missing.
Here's where the genius of Coca-Cola comes
in. First, Sundblom's image of Santa Claus hit the right buttons in terms
of stirring the hearts and quenching the thirst of consumers everywhere.
Modeled on a retired salesman named Lou Prentice, Sundblom's Santa had
just the right combination of happy wrinkles, prompting Coca-Cola to hire
Sundblom to create Coke ads using this model over the next 35 years. Also,
Coca-Cola orchestrated an attack on the market with Santa-Coke propaganda.
Magazine advertisements were particularly effective, considering that during
that era, print publications had the influence TV does today: They were
able to communicate over and over and over again the same image and slogan
to a mass audience.
Point-of-purchase promotional items were extremely
common. Collectibles were another way Coca-Cola expanded its presence--a
strategy that is standard today for many advertisers, from Nike to Joe
Camel. Finally, Coca-Cola patented a particular shade of red--that bright
red used for Coke packaging and for Santa's suit. All of the artists hired
to work for Coca-Cola were required to use this shade of red, influencing
consumers, no doubt, to make the constant association between red and Coke
and Santa. This is perhaps the biggest kicker, considering that there is
little consistency with regard to the color of Santa's suit between Nast's
version, Moore's literary image and early European portrayals.
These days, the sacredness of Coke's Santa
has expired. Santa is ubiquitous, Coke is ubiquitous, but no one really
remembers that the two were at one time closely entwined. It's a history
that is mostly understood by public relations advisers and college marketing
students, and maybe the slew of museumgoers who saw the "Advertising as
Art" exhibit at the Louvre.
Sometimes Coca-Cola revives Sundblom's Santa
in a commemorative appeal to its loyal consumers, but the story is rarely
told. As Mark Pendergrast, author of For God, Country and Coca-Cola, concluded:
"Prior to the Sundblom illustrations, the Christmas saint had been variously
illustrated wearing blue, yellow, green, or red...After the soft drink
ads, Santa would forever more be a huge, fat, relentlessly
happy man with broad belt and black hip boots--and he would wear Coca-Cola
red...While Coca-Cola has had a subtle, pervasive influence on our culture,
it has directly shaped the way we think of Santa."