What a jolly guy! Twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, big round belly and a full shiny beard. From head to toe in red and white… wait, those are the Coca-Cola colors! Is our childhood icon nothing more than a commercial creation, invented to sell sugar water?
While living in Europe I was shocked to hear from family, friend and acquaintance alike that Santa, as we know him today, was nothing more than a creation by the commercial giant Coca-Cola. I was told that before Coca-Cola came along, the guy we know as Santa was nothing like the the jolly old chap that we know and love today. In fact, a few strangers met in the pub gave me an earful about how sickened and angry they were with American commercialism which could use corporate colors (Coca-Cola’s red and white) to create an image of Santa Claus for their own purposes. They confronted me with statements, such as, “If Coca-Cola’s colors were blue and green, Santa would be wearing a blue and green suit today!”
After getting over my initial shock at this new information, I did some research (thank goodness the internet came along!) and found that my European counterparts were only partially correct in their assessment of our modern-day hero. Coca-Cola did have a role in more firmly solidifying a single image of Santa, but they were simply following an image that had already been strongly established: Santa was already wearing red and white and was established as a jolly old soul with rosy cheeks and a flowing white bear many years before Haddon Sundblom, Coca-Cola’s illustrator, created the legendary Coca-Cola images in the 1930’s.
Snopes. com does a great job of outlining the gradual evolution of this popular legendary figure. Three photos from 1906, 1908 and 1925 clearly depict Santa as we as we know him today, which is many years before Coca-Cola’s advertising images from the 1930’s to the 1960’s (which were an attempt to encourage people to drink more of their beverage during the cold, holiday months). Thus, Coca-Cola clearly did not invent the images we associate with Santa today, yet Haddon Sundblom certainly influenced things in a big way.
What this urban legend shows us is the power that advertising has over both our imaginations and realities. Just because Coca-Cola didn’t invent our modern image of Santa doesn’t mean that advertising didn’t solidifying these images in our minds. We may not think that advertising influences us in any way, shape or form but it is impossible not to be influenced at least minimally.
This urban legend also shows us the ease with which we are eager to believe stories that seem to make sense (or give us something to be upset about). It makes perfect sense that Coca-Cola would have been behind the campaign to make Santa’s suit it’s corporate colors. Of course, the reality is usually not as simple as we’d like to believe it is.
In conclusion, here is a quote from snopes.com:
Coke’s annual advertisements featuring Sundblom-drawn Santas holding bottles of Coca-Cola, drinking Coca-Cola, receiving Coca-Cola as gifts, and enjoying Coca-Cola became a perennial Christmastime feature which helped spur Coca-Cola sales throughout the winter (and produced the bonus effect of appealing quite strongly to children, an important segment of the soft drink market). In an era before the advent of television, before color motion pictures became common, and before the widespread use of color in newspapers,Coca-Cola’smagazine advertisements, billboards, and point-of-sale store displays were for many Americans their primary exposure to the modern Santa Claus image.
Happy Holidays everyone!