The Truth About Santa Claus, Coke Pusher

Did Coke create the modern Santa Claus? If so, artist Haddon Sundblom was the man behind the beard. Here he models for himself as Santa Claus.

Instead of complaining about the commercialization of Christmas, let’s celebrate one of the finest and longest-running advertising campaigns centered around the season.

Did Coca-Cola Really Create the Modern Image of Santa Claus?

Technically, no. If you check Snopes, that claim is marked “false.” The myth-busting site does give Coke partial credit, however. And according to the soft-drink maker’s own website, “Coca-Cola® advertising actually helped shape this modern-day image of Santa.” Not much argument there.

Did Coke Choose the Color of Santa’s Suit?

In 1862, Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly as a small elf-like Union supporter. Nast continued to draw Santa for 30 years, along the way changing the coat from tan to red. So Santa’s red suit came from Nast’s vision of St. Nick, not Coke’s corporate color.

Thomas Nast's Santa Claus for Harper's.

Winter Wasn’t Always Coke Weather

Back in the day (the Roaring ‘20s), people thought of Coca-Cola as a drink for warm weather only. To rectify that perception, the company began running ads in 1922 with the slogan “Thirst Knows No Season,” then followed up with a campaign connecting the beverage with Santa Claus to lend it some cold-weather cred.

Sundblom’s Santa

The most famous version of the man with all the toys is the one created by illustrator Haddon Sundblom. Coke credits its advertising agency for the vision: “Archie Lee, the D’Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted the next campaign to show a wholesome Santa as both realistic and symbolic.” So in 1931, Sundblom got the gig to develop advertising art using Santa Claus, with a twist: the images would depict the actual Santa, not a man dressed as Santa. 

Does This Coke Make Santa Look Fat?

Remember, Santa shook “like a bowl full of jelly” before he started on the soda. Sundblom’s visual inspiration came from Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Once he discovered his calling, Sundblom kept painting Santa for the next 33 years.

Haddon Sundblom's first Coca-Cola Santa Claus illustration debuted in 1931.

Sundblom’s body of work continues to live on in perennial Coca-Cola Christmas (yes,“Christmas,” not holiday) advertising. His original art is still being used today, decades after his death in 1976. In fact, a 1964 Sundblom Santa served as the basis for an animated TV commercial in 2001.

Advertising As Fine Art

Art directors and designers take note: Haddon Sundblom’s original paintings have been exhibited “around the world, including at the Louvre in Paris, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the Isetan Department Store in Tokyo and the NK Department Store in Stockholm.” Not too shabby for advertising.

Here’s this year’s Coca-Cola commercial, featuring a Sundblom-style Santa shaking things up with his snow globe.

Well, would you look at the time? It’s getting late in the year, so to paraphrase Clement Moore, here’s wishing a “Merry Christmas to all.” Or at least a Happy Christmahanukwanzikah.

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