Santa Claus has become as standardized as a Big Mac.
Which makes perfect sense since it was Coca Cola who helped sell that singular iconic image.
For decades Coca Cola has not only perpetuated the American Dream with its color drenched images of wholesome small town American life, it singlehandedly solidified our image of Santa Claus in its lushly illustrated Christmas ads.
Just as Coke became the most ubiquitous soda sold at every grocery store, luncheonette and stadium across the country, so its portrayal of a red suited, eternally jolly, eternally white Santa became the quintessential St Nick, bonding forever the syrupy soda to the image of Santa Claus.
Despite urban legends, Coke did not invent our modern-day Santa, as the red suited, white bearded, jolly man had already existed.
Coca Cola was not even the first soft drink company to use the modern image of Santa in advertising.
White Rock beverages had that distinction, having already used a red and white Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and then in its ginger ale ads in 1923. But it was the lushly painted illustrations of Haddon Sundblom for Coca Cola more than anyone else whose iconic images of the mythical Santa would implant themselves into our culture.
Life is Just a Bowl Of Cherry Cokes
It was during the dark days of the Depression that Coca Cola’s iconic Santa was born.
1931, the year of the first Sundblom Santa advertisement, was a bleak year in America.
Unemployment neared 16%; 2 out of 3 workers in Detroit were unemployed; the national income was down 33% and a dark blot in the history of racism occurred when the Scottsboro boys, 9 Black teenagers, were falsely charged with raping a white woman on a train and wrongly sentenced to death.
A nation could use some good cheer.
Depression era advertising presented Coke as a pleasant inexpensive time out from an increasingly difficult reality. Everyone could find a nickel to “bounce back to normal.”
A few years earlier Coca Cola had been trying to convince consumers that Coke could be enjoyed during winter months as well as the summer months. The soft drink wanted to be associated with the holidays by advertising Coke for Christmas.
Who better to help pitch their product than Santa Claus.
As the Depression settled in Coca Cola enlisted Santa Claus to their cause.
Though the best known Santa was the creation of Sundblom, he was not the first artist to create an image of Santa Claus for Coca Cola. In the 1930 ad, artist Fred Mizen had depicted an ordinary man as a department store Santa dressed in costume pausing to refresh himself with a Coke amid the crush of shoppers.
Enter Haddon Sundblom.
The following year, the illustrator who would help shape the way we would forever think of Santa did his first Coca Cola Santa ad.
A well-known illustrator, he was already famous for inventing Aunt Jemima and the Quaker Oats man, and would go on to helping define the American dream in many ad campaigns.
Sundblom’s Santa was the perfect Coca Cola pitch man.
Bigger than life, jolly and rotund, he glowed with a luminous warmth and loved to drink Coca Cola “a luxury you can afford” whether delivering presents from the North Pole, cobbling toys in his workshop or going down the chimney to make deliveries.
As inspiration, Sundbom used Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “Twas the Night Before Xmas.” In the poem, St Nick is described as being chubby plump jolly old elf with a “tiny round belly” that “shook when he laughed liker a bowlful of jelly”
Every Xmas Sundblom delivered another eagerly awaited Coca Cola that captivated generations.
After the soft drink ads, Santa Claus would forever more be a huge, happy, white man with a broad belt and black hip boots dressed in Coca Cola red.
Like Coke, their Santa was “the real thing!”
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2013.
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