The Debunker: Did Coca-Cola Advertising Create the Modern Santa Claus?

image

THE DEBUNKER On May 8, 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia, two men tried to mix up a batch of a new pain reliever for their pharmacy. The result was so delicious they marketed it as a soft drink instead, and Coca-Cola was born. Coke turned 133 years old this month, but any brand that's been so beloved for so long is liable to accumulate its share of folklore. Take a brief, refreshing pause to correct your carbonated conjectures about Coke with Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings.

The Debunker: Did Coca-Cola Advertising Create the Modern Santa Claus?

Maybe it's the red-and-white suit? Trivia types often bandy about the "little-known fact" that Santa Claus, the jolly symbol of Christmas giving, is not a figure of folklore at all, but was dreamed up in a series of midcentury holiday ads for Coca-Cola. Is Santa really just a soda pop pitchman? Even the Coke website wants you to believe this. "Coca-Cola did help to create the modern-day image of Santa," it boasts, "and in fact the way most of us see Santa Claus – friendly and plump with a white beard – did come from Coca-Cola advertising."

The Debunker

It's correct that the modern image of Santa is an American creation, a synthesis of the Dutch "Sinterklaas" with the British "Father Christmas" that's been filtered through influential works like Clement C. Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and the political cartoons of Thomas Nast. Lushly painted magazine art, like Haddon Sundblom's Coke ads that ran from 1931 to 1964, did much to popularize the Santa brand.

But did Sundblom's Coke work add anything new to the brand? It's easy to prove that the answer is no: Santa was already Santa before Coke jumped on the sleigh. Take a look at "Hug from Santa," a Saturday Evening Post cover from December 1925, five years before Sundblom's campaign began. The Santa pictured here is 100% what you would expect to see at a mall or in a holiday TV car ad today. Big toy bag, check. White beard, check. Jolly smile and rosy cheeks, check. Round little belly, check. Red suit lined in white fur, with the right hat, belt, and boots? Check. It's all there.

Santa sees you when you're sleeping, and he knows when you're awake, but at least he's not in the pocket of Big Soda. Those Coke-drinking polar bears, however, are another story. Total sell-outs.

Quick Quiz:The late David Huddleston, who played the title character in 1985's Santa Claus: The Movie, is best known to movie buffs for his role as what Coen Brothers title character?

Ken Jennings is the author of twelve books, most recently Planet Funny and co-hosts the most important podcast in human history, Omnibus. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

I’m going to disagree. The cover you’re referring to shows Santa as a much shorter version of the ones used 5 years later, depicting him more as an elf or dwarf than a full grown man. It wasn’t until Coke’s ads that they began to move away from the idea of him being a “jolly old elf.”

That’s an intriguing idea, that Coke may at least have given Santa his height. But I’m not convinced. I’m looking at a bunch of Haddon Sundblom Santa ads, and he still seems pretty short. I can also find some pre-1930 art where Santa’s height seems reasonably normal…or at least not weirdly dwarf-like.

Huddleston was The Big Lebowski