Did a soda-pop company invent Santa?
by Seeta Pena Gangadharan
Santa Claus is the result of a Coke deal.
No joke. Fat, jolly Santa -- the guy with the red suit and cap, the thick black
belt and sooty boots, the rosy cheeks, the luminous eyes, the
brighter-than-white teeth -- is the spawn of an advertising campaign by
Coca-Cola back in the 1930s.
Surprised? Don't be. As far as Coca-Cola is concerned, this is public
knowledge. The company is open about its role in popularizing Santa; it has
even sponsored gallery exhibitions on "Advertising as Art" that explain how it
all happened, one of which was held at the Carrousel du Louvre, in Paris, in
1996. Here's the story:
Back in the late 19th century, when Coca-Cola was new, the whole purpose of the
beverage was medicinal. If you were feeling "low" or if you suffered from
headaches, a Coke was the perfect remedy. The featured ingredient -- cocaine,
or coca-bean extract -- guaranteed a renewed agility and acuity. Indeed, many
people found out about Coke from their pharmacists; the company paid
pharmacists a commission if drugstores allowed them to install a carbonation
tap on the premises.
By the 1930s, Coca-Cola needed to re-evaluate its business plan. The more
controversial aspects of the beverage had long been dealt with (as early as
1903, coca-bean extract was removed and caffeine took its place), but it was
the Depression; beverage sales were slow -- especially in the wintry months --
and Coca-Cola needed a new hook and line to attract the American market.
So, in 1931, Coca-Cola changed its target audience: from the adult looking for
a pharmaceutical pick-me-up to the whole family. Coca-Cola was now a great
taste to be enjoyed by everyone! To bring the point home, the company launched
an extensive advertising campaign that pioneered the use of well-known artists
as ad designers. Coca-Cola blitzed pharmacies and stores with promotional
material suitable for the whole family.
The most successful illustrations were by a Swedish artist named Haddon
Sundblom, whose work depicted a portly white man in a red suit bringing joy to
family and friends with a bottle of Coke. The figure in the illustrations was
the first modern Santa.
Naturally Coke can't take full credit for bringing Santa into the homes
and hearts of Americans everywhere; the full history of Santa Claus is much
longer than the history of the Coca-Cola company. Various folk traditions
incorporate mysterious holiday gift givers: St. Nicholas, loosely based on a
fourth-century bishop of Asia Minor; a Scandinavian dwarf or a goat; Kolyada,
the white-robed girl of pre-revolutionary Russia who arrived atop a sleigh with
accompanying carolers; and the many religious gift bearers associated with the
In the United States, the Dutch were primarily responsible for spreading the
idea of Sante Klaas, whose character 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: eight flying reindeer, living near the North Pole,
filling socks with presents, arriving through the chimney.
Two people are usually given credit for creating the American version of Santa:
Clement C. Moore and Thomas Nast. In 1823, Moore wrote "A Visit from St.
Nicholas," the poem we generally think of as " 'Twas the Night Before
Christmas." His description of Santa is suggestive of a fat man, 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 a version of St.
Nicholas for Harper's Illustrated Weekly. Nast's Santa, now a famous
image, wears a woolly suit and resembles a stout elf with whiskers and a beard.
But still, he doesn't look quite like Santa. Most of Nast's
illustrations were black and white, but even in his color renditions, Santa
prefigures the modern, commercial image only vaguely. Most notably, his
trademark bright red color is missing.
As a jolly man in a red suit, Santa Claus is pure Coke. The company found that
Haddon Sundblom's image of Santa Claus -- modeled, incidentally, on a retired
salesman named Lou Prentice -- hit the right buttons in terms of stirring the
hearts and quenching the thirsts of consumers everywhere. The company
contracted with Sundblom to continue making Coke ads with this model for the
next 35 years.
Using Sundblom's version of Santa, Coca-Cola orchestrated a full frontal attack
on the market. Santa-Coke propaganda was everywhere. Magazine advertisements
were particularly popular, as were point-of-purchase promotional items.
Collectibles, too, were another way that Coca-Cola expanded its presence -- a
strategy that is standard today for any advertiser, from Camel to Nike.
Coca-Cola also patented a formula for the bright red color used for Coke
packaging and for Santa's suit. Any artist working for Coca-Cola was required
to use this color red; every Santa in every Coke ad was the exact same red
color as the Coke label. As with its famous bottle, Coke had given birth to a
nearly universal American icon.
A marketing campaign, of course, can be too successful for its own
good. We no longer associate the Coca-Cola company with Santa, even a Santa
dressed in the exact color of a Coke can. In becoming ubiquitous, the two icons
have become independent again. Now the link is a matter of advertising history,
something to be studied by marketing students and maybe the slew of tourists
and French citizens who saw Coke's exhibit at the Louvre. Occasionally,
Coca-Cola revives Sundblom's Santa in a nostalgic appeal to its loyal
consumers, but the story is rarely told.
As Mark Pendergrast, author of For God, Country and Coca-Cola,
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.
Seeta Pena Gangadharan is a freelance writer living in London.