Coca-Cola, Holidays and Santa – How It All Started
For many ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ played on the radio marks the start of Christmas and the holiday season. For some it’s the smell of cinnamon or cookies fresh from the oven and for some it’s the Coca-Cola holiday advertisement. It’s not unreasonable to think of Coca-Cola when you think of the holidays since the company has been launching out holiday campaigns since the 1920s. Because of this long tradition of holiday campaigns, some even (incorrectly) think Coca-Cola invented Santa! We all know now that Coca-Cola is a champion of holiday campaigns but how did the company’s Christmas story and partnership with Santa begin?
In the past, Santa Claus didn’t look the way we all know he looks now. He wasn’t the loving chubby old man with white beard wearing a red suit. His looks varied from a spooky-looking elf, to a tall bony man. And red wasn’t his colour – he was more often portrayed in green! In 1931, for one of their first holiday magazine ads, The Coca-Cola Company hired the D’Arcy Advertising Agency. Archie Lee, the executive on the project, wanted to show a realistic and symbolic Santa. He commissioned Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator who took the inspiration for Santa from Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’, or as you probably know it ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’. Moore described Santa as a warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human, and so Sundblom drew the Santa we recognise today. Sundblom created Coca-Cola holiday ads featuring Santa until 1964, but even after his final version of Santa, the ads images of Santa were based on his drawings.
Now that you know how the modern version of Santa Claus was brought to life, all you need to know is how Coca-Cola used familiar stories, pop culture and current events to become one of the most prominent holiday brands. Ads frequently featured Santa with popular toys gifted to children. The 1936 campaign showed Santa with an electric toy train. As new toys came in stores, Coca-Cola made sure to place them alongside Santa so the 1962 holiday campaign featured an electric toy helicopter. The popular holiday toy and the familiar image of Santa all reinforced Coca-Cola as the holiday product and brand. Along with the Coca-Cola bottles and trendy toys, Santa himself became a pop culture holiday icon after the first decade or so of holiday magazine ads.
Finally, to connect with consumers, Coca-Cola used real life events that shaped their consumers’ lives. During the World War II, The Coca-Cola Company used their holiday campaign to support American soldiers. The 1943 campaign portrayed Santa carrying his sack filled with toys and war bonds, and the 1944 campaign featured Santa toasting to ‘our G.I. Joes’. When Americans came home from war in 1945, Coca-Cola again used a current event in the holiday campaign and showed Santa coming home and welcomed with a bottle of Coca-Cola.
The familiar story of Santa and the inclusion of trending toys and current events all helped shape Coca-Cola as the classic holiday brand. So blast that Mariah’s song and grab a Coke, it’s Christmas!