Santa is all about a Coke deal. No joke. Fat and jolly Santa with the red suit and cap, thick black belt and sooty boots, rosy cheeks, luminous eyes and brighter-than-white teeth ... is the genius of a Coca-Cola advertising campaign back in the 1930s.
Now before you go off in a huff, dear reader, and hide this article from Santa-believers, please keep this in mind: It ain't no secret that the most revered Claus is corporate-sponsored. Coca-Cola remains open and proud of their role in popularizing Santa. They've sponsored gallery exhibits on "Advertising as Art" that explain this phenomenon -- the most famous being one held at the Carrousel du Louvre (a.k.a., Louvre Gallery in Paris) back in 1996. So don't blame me for trampling on your imagination by passing on this interesting piece of consumer history; this is a real-life Santa tale that deserves to be heard.
Back in the late 19th century, when Coca-Cola was born, 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-leaf extract, guaranteed a renewed self with greater agility and acuity.
Many folks learned of this medicinal beverage from pharmacists. In fact, Coca-Cola paid pharmacists a commission for sales of the beverage in drugstores that allowed the company to install a carbonation tap on the premises.
By the '30s, however, Coca-Cola needed to re-evaluate its business outlook and consider how it was going to keep things going during the Depression. The more-controversial aspects of the beverage had long been dealt with (as early as 1903, coca extract was removed and caffeine took its place). Beverage sales were slowing down -- especially in the winter months, and Coca-Cola needed a new hook-and-sinker to attract the American market.
So, in 1931, Coca-Cola changed its target audience from the adult who lacked pep to the whole family who required cheer and joy. Coca-Cola was a great taste to be enjoyed by everyone! And with that, they decided to launch an extensive advertising campaign to demonstrate the drink's new appeal. Pioneering the use of well-known artists to design their ad campaigns, the company blitzed pharmacies and stores with promotional material that was suitable for the whole family. One artist in particular -- Haddon Sundblom, who was Swedish -- produced especially effective images, and it's his rendition of a portly white man in a red suit bringing joy to family and friends simply with a bottle of Coke that we see in shopping malls, greeting cards, commercials, Salvation Army booths, and so on.
Of course, Coca-Cola can't be fully credited for bringing Santa into the homes and hearts of Americans everywhere. The history of Santa Claus, the mystery gift-giver, far predates the beverage company -- but in previous avatars, Santa wore no red suit. Whether it's St. Nicholas (loosely based on the fourth-century bishop of Asia Minor), Kolyada (the white-robed girl of pre-revolutionary Russia who arrived atop a sleigh with accompanying carolers), a Scandinavian dwarf, or the many religious gift-bearers associated with the Magi, none of these Old World depictions of Santa were costumed in red ... especially not the Scandanavian version.
In the United States, the Dutch were primarily responsible for spreading the idea of Sante Klaas, 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. The visual image, however, wasn't honed until much later, with the help of Coca-Cola.
In 1822, an American professor, Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, wrote "The Visit of St. Nicholas," known today as the "The Night Before Christmas." His description of Santa suggests a fat man, but one more 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. He wears a furry suit and resembles a stout, bearded elf with whiskers and a beard. But the quote-unquote trademark look is not apparent. Nast often created etchings in black-and-white that presage the Coke Santa (belted suit). And Nast's color renditions do vaguely resemble the modern, commercial image. Once again though, most notably, the bright red color is missing.
Why, dear reader, is this so? Well ... here's where the genius of Coca-Cola comes in. A couple of explanations are due. First, Haddon Sundblom's Santa Claus hit the right buttons in terms of stirring the hearts and quenching the thirst of consumers everywhere. Modeled after a retired salesman named Lou Prentice, Sundblom's Santa had just the right combination of happy wrinkles, prompting Coca-Cola to hire Sundblom to continue making Coke ads with this model for the next 35 years. His was a comforting face well suited to an enjoyable beverage.
Second, compared to the limited audience of Harper's Illustrated Weekly, Coca-Cola aimed to saturate as many outlets as possible. They orchestrated a full, frontal attack on the market with Santa-Coke propaganda. Magazine advertisements were particularly effective in an era when print publications were like TV today: able to communicate the same image and slogan, over and over again, to a mass audience. Point-of-purchase promotional items were extremely common. Collectibles, too, were another way that Coca-Cola could expand its presence -- a strategy that has since become standard for any advertiser, from Nike to Joe Camel.
Finally, Coca-Cola actually patented a formula for red -- that bright red used both for Coke packaging and for Santa's suit. Any 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, well, Santa.
This is perhaps the biggest kicker, considering that Nast's version, Moore's literary image, or the early European portrayals show little consistency in this regard.
These days, however, the sacredness of Coke's Santa has itself 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's mostly understood by PR advisers and college marketing students, and maybe by the slew of French and tourists who saw the "Advertising as Art" exhibit at the Louvre. Occasionally, 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."
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