Written by Jocelyn Courneya
Edited by Pina Capuano
“Santa”, “Santa Claus”, “S. Claus”, “Jolly old St. Nick”. Chances are, that as the Christmas season draws closer, the more often you hear one of these names alongside images of a jolly fat man with a long white beard, dressed head to toe in red. While many associate this magical man in red with the Christmas holiday season, what many do not know is the history behind the modern image of Santa Claus and his role in the 20th century marketing of Coca Cola.
There have been speculations around the idea that the advertising team at Coca Cola were the inventors of Santa Claus, but this is just a myth. In fact, Coca Cola was not the first organization to use the face of Santa as a promotional tool. One of the first promotional uses of Santa Claus was an illustration done by artist Thomas Nast in the early 1860s for Harper’s Weekly. The image can be viewed below, as Santa Claus is welcomed to a 19th century civil war camp.
While Nast’s illustrations do bear some resemblance to the modern image of St. Nick, his drawings often depicted Santa in various forms. Some of Nast’s other drawings showed tall Santas, thin Santas, and Santas dressed in tan clothing rather than red.
The first image of the “modern” Santa was in a Coca Cola advertisement illustrated by Fred Mizen in 1930. The advertisement featured a department store Santa Claus standing in front of the world’s largest soda fountain at the Barr Co. Department Store in St. Louis. It was a surprise when the man dressed in red caused so much excitement for readers of the issue, sparking the soon to be famous relationship between Santa and Coca Cola.
From this advertisement forward, Santa would not only become the holiday face of Coca Cola, but he would become a prominent figure during the Christmas season. The Coca Cola corporation had artist Haddon Sundblom take Mizen’s famous department store Santa illustration and transform Santa into a character, rather than someone dressed up for the role.
One year after the release of Mizen’s Santa illustration, Sundblom’s Santa made his first appearance in The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, The New York Times, and other print media. These images of the holly jolly man in red with a bottle of coke in hand, continued to make their mark on the holiday season for 33 years.
It may be interesting for some to note, that the man behind the illustrations of our most prominent image of Santa was also the illustrator of other major promotional characters, like Aunt Jemima and the Quaker Oats Man. Sundblom’s illustrations for Coca Cola would become famous corporate artwork, put on display for publics around the world. Sundblom’s last works before his death in 1976, was for Playboy magazine, in which he gave a ‘different spin’ to his usual ‘bottle of Coke’ Santa.
Jumping forward to 2001, Coca Cola animated Sundblom’s Santa with a television commercial which may spark a few Christmas memories for many of us.
Now, while Santa takes form in many of our favourite Christmas movies and stories, the jolly old man in red lives on in Coca Cola’s latest Christmas advertisements. Although the Coca Cola corporation may not be the creative force behind the invention of Santa Claus, their continued use of his image in their holiday advertisements has turned him into a prominent figure for the Christmas season.
For those interested, this year’s Coca Cola Santa advertisement can be viewed here: