Nothing says Christmas like Santa Claus, right? I mean, here is the spokescritter that ties it all together for the kids: goodwill, generosity, gifts.
A Little History
Contrary to the urban legend, Santa Claus was not created by the Coca-Cola corporation to sell soda. They weren’t even the first soda company to use him as a spokescritter. That distinction goes to White Rock Beverages, which started with mineral water and moved on to ginger ale in the early ’20s.
But Santa Claus existed long before that.
Despite first appearing in 1773, the name “Santa Claus” is considered an Americanization. It is an alteration of Sinterklaas, a Dutch moniker that is itself derived from “Saint Nicholas,” a 2nd century Christian saint known for (among other things) gift-giving.
As is common in such folklore, there are reports — well prior to Christianization — of a bearded dude who showed up at night in the dead of winter. At right in the picture below, you can see what that character looks like in modern pop culture.
Anyway, it’s not hard to understand how the urban legend came about. Coke’s advertising campaign began in the ’30s, with an utter barrage of ads that quickly cemented public perception of Coke as the jolly old elf’s beverage of choice.
Of course, people started to make the connection between extreme soda consumption (not helped by ballooning portion sizes) and obesity, and that meant fat jokes.
Coke evidently decided that having a morbidly obese home invader as their winter mascot might be bad positioning, and they re-targeted their holiday marketing to use another mascot they’d been using sporadically since the ’20s: the polar bear.
Santa has other defining characteristics besides a belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly. The image of a bearded, red-garbed old guy is utterly solid in Western culture. So it’s natural for advertisers to subvert expectations as a way to get your attention.
For example, Gillette (and a few other razor companies) just could not let go of this conceit:
Even Santa’s red suit has been subverted; such as in this ad, that’s apparently from Santa’s bachelor years.
All Aboard the Ho-Ho Train
Of course, Coke and Gillette haven’t got a monopoly on using Santa in advertising. He’s the spokescritter of Christmas, not of carbonated corn syrup beverages or overpriced shaving implements. As such, Santa has been used to sell pretty much everything.
But the character is best when simply used as a pure expression of the joy of the holiday. Our favorite examples:
World Record Largest Gathering of Santas
As of this writing, the biggest gathering on record at the Guinness Book of World Records website is 13,000 Santas in Derry, Northern Ireland (2007). There are reports of even larger Santa Parties since — all in service of charities for children in need.
Australia’s Surfing Santas
In the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas lands right in the middle of summer. The holiday activities Australians get up to sound more like what Americans do for 4th of July or Memorial Day. For example: Hitting the beach for some surfing.
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