Most people can agree on what Santa Claus looks like – a jolly old man with a big white beard dressed up in a red suit with big black boots. But that depiction of Santa is a modern day creation, the product of advertising.
Saint Nicholas was the 4th Century Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey), he was known for giving to the poor. In particular, he was known for providing the dowries for three impoverished sisters – sparing them of a life of begging and prostitution. Saint Nicholas became (among many other things) the patron saint of children.
Saint Nicholas came into American culture by way of the Dutch Sint Nicolaas / Sinterklaas in the 18th Century. By the 1800’s, the Dutch Saint Nicholas and the British Father Christmas began to merge into one figure, a gift-giving patron of children that embodies the Christmas Feast. In 1823, Clement Clarke Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” defined and formalized this new hybrid figure, described very much like the Scandinavian Tomte: a small, jolly, fat, bearded, pipe-smoking, reindeer-riding figure who arrives on Christmas Eve.
Santa Claus had been depicted as everything from a tall gaunt man to an elf. He has worn a bishop’s robe and a Norse huntsman’s animal skin. The Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly in 1862; Santa was shown as a small elf-like figure who supported the Union. Nast continued to draw Santa for 30 years and along the way changed the color of his coat from tan to the now traditional red.
But that all change during the Great Depression years when Santa Claus, a big fat jolly old man with a big white beard and a red suit started to appear in magazine ads for Coca-Cola®. At the time, many people thought of Coca-Cola as a drink only for warm weather. The Coca-Cola Company began a campaign to remind people that Coca-Cola was a great choice in any month. This began with the 1922 slogan “Thirst Knows No Season,” and continued with a campaign connecting a true icon of winter — Santa Claus — with the beverage.
The Coca-Cola Company commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — showing Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa, as earlier artists had portrayed him. For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Moore’s description of St. Nick led to an image of Santa that was warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human. Sundblom painted portraits of Santa for thirty-three years that helped to create the modern image of Santa — an interpretation that today lives on in the minds of people of all ages, all over the world.
From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola advertising showed Santa delivering (and playing!) with toys, pausing to read a letter and enjoy a Coke, playing with children who stayed up to greet him and raiding the refrigerators at a number of homes. The original oil paintings Sundblom created were adapted for Coca-Cola advertising in magazines, store displays, billboards, posters, calendars and even plush dolls. Many of those items today are popular collectibles.
So as you assess the marketing challenges you are dealing with, remember this campaign was initiated during the Great Depression years. It changed the way consumers used the product, people started drinking Coke year round. And it left an indelible impression in the minds of everyone, just what Santa Claus is supposed to look like.
Advertising works to brand your business and grow your market share, both in good times and bad.