Who is the modern American Santa Claus? Has he had an influence on marketing? Whether or not you believe he has, one thing is for sure: Santa Claus has become a popular mass media figure and his image is replete in department stores, shopping malls, and decorations throughout the world each December.
Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas as he’s sometimes known, is in the middle of the chaos of the season. For many children, a big part of the Christmas magic is the chubby man in the red suit who brings joy to millions.
Jolly old Saint Nick doesn’t just entertain kids, however — he’s also a great marketing tool. For many advertisers, Santa is the perfect pitchman. We did some research, and as it turns out, Santa has been a big part of marketing for more than 100 years.
Branding Santa Claus
The story of Santa Claus goes back to a monk named Saint Nicholas, who is believed to have lived around 280 A.D. in what is now modern-day Turkey. St. Nicholas was a devoutly religious man known for his generosity. History is full of stories about his charitable acts and secret gift-giving.
In 1822, the public’s image of Santa Claus was heavily influenced by the famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore, which later became known as “The Night Before Christmas.” In America, Moore’s description of a Father Christmas quickly became an enduring part of the Christmas tradition. He introduced the idea of St. Nicholas as a joyful, plump, and toy-bearing with eight reindeer and a flying sleigh.
The first appearance of a modern Santa Claus came in the late 1800s by American cartoonist Thomas Nast. Prior to his drawings, Santa’s outfit was a tan color. Nast drew inspiration from Moore’s poem but drew Santa’s suit in both red and green His illustrations of Santa famously appeared in Harper’s Weekly.
Later, well-known artist Norman Rockwell took the idea Nast had laid down but humanized Santa even more by portraying him as a thoughtful, grandfatherly man in line with historical descriptions of Saint Nicholas. Rockwell showed Santa as a cheery, joyful character who you could almost hear bellowing “Ho, Ho, Ho” in the images.
So how did Santa get involved in advertising? In 1915, White Rock Water in San Francisco was the first company to include Santa in an advertising campaign. They depicted him with a white beard driving a sleigh full of White Rock carbonated water. He was a jolly old fellow who didn’t even need reindeer to deliver water.
Here Comes Coca-Cola Santa
In 1931, Coca-Cola was the first company that executed a marketing campaign for Christmas with Santa. Coca-Cola commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to create the Santa Claus image for their ads. He simply refined the Santa Claus image created by Nast and Rockwel. His version eventually became the standard form of Santa, including the red suit outfit.
Coca-Cola used Sundblom’s original Santa oil paintings in magazines, billboards, and posters. People loved these images of Santa. They paid such close attention to them that when anything changed, they sent letters and complained to the company. One year, Santa’s large belt was backwards (perhaps because Sundblom was painting via a mirror). Another year, Santa Claus appeared without a wedding ring, causing fans to write and ask what happened to Mrs. Claus.
Santa Keeps Up with Current Events and Trends
As time went on, Santa started appearing annually in holiday advertisements, some of which were naughty and some nice. During WWI and WWII, Santa was turned into a patriotic figure. The U.S. government produced ads and art that showed Santa with the troops.
During the Pearl Harbor bombing just weeks before Christmas 1941, Santa urged Americans to buy war bonds and maintain silence to prevent leaks to the enemy. “Santa Claus Has Gone to War,” said a production poster of a jolly, gun-toting Santa with a rifle over his shoulder dressed in a green army uniform and helmet instead of the familiar red suit and hat. Other similar ads proclaimed “Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Fight.”
Over the years as technology improved so did Santa. In 1963 the first polaroid color film was introduced. At the time, 35mm cameras became very popular. The images weren’t just in color but also developed inside the camera in less than a minute. Their cameras were small enough to fit into a pocket. Even though the cameras were expensive, a cheerful advertisement of Santa taking pictures caught the public’s attention. In the ads, Santa said the cameras were the perfect gifts for “anyone that has a pocket.”
Santa was not only good at taking pictures but was also good at writing on a typewriter. Electronic typewriters first appeared in the 1970s. Word processing typists could make mistakes, correct them, move things around, and change their minds in ways that would require endless retyping on a conventional typewriter. This was the perfect technology for Santa Claus to make his list and check it twice.
In modern times, Santa has always been curious to try new gadgets. Siri was a big hit on iPhone 4s in 2011, offering a new innovation that was a fast favorite by everyone — especially by Santa. Ads showed Santa using Siri to help him day and night. Most people’s favorite part of the Siri commercials was when Santa asked Siri how the rest of his day looked and Siri tells him he’s got another 3.7 billion appointments to go.
Santa in 2020
This year, a pandemic year, Santa’s visits are looking very different than the visits most people are accustomed to. In some current ads, Santa is shown using Zoom to visit children around the world, sometimes visiting many of them at the same time. Some kids even have the privilege of seeing the North Pole, asking questions, and getting updates on naughty lists.
To All a Good Night
Whatever you think about Santa, there’s no question he has an amazing brand. His iconic look has helped promote products and events for decades. His holiday spirit has inspired soldiers at war and encouraged the masses to drink everything from water to soda. He brings hope and makes the world a better place. We’re glad Santa is around to bring joy to the children of the world. For us, he will always have a place on the nice list.