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Santa Claus, Retailing And "The Real Thing"

Updated on February 27, 2012

Coca-Cola's Iconic Santa Claus

One Of The Legends That Made Santa Claus

While most folks, sixty and older, may have heard a part of this story before, I thought I’d re-visit the power of advertising and an image of the familiar old “rotund one,” Santa Claus, that is.

During the early 1900’s Coke had primarily been thought of as a warm weather drink. In an effort to encourage sales of Coke during the cold weather and to direct their company advertising towards the children of America, Coca-Cola inadvertently affected American folk culture for decades to come and maybe even longer than that.

Santa Portrayals From The Past

Prior to this time, people had pictured Santa in a variety of ways around the world, basically because he had been portrayed by a number of artists through the nighteenth and early twentieth century. Santa had been illustrated by artists and seen by the public in blue, green, yellow and red outfits. In Europe, Santa was thought of generally as somewhat tall and thin with wild silvery or gray hair. (Can you imagine a Santa that looked like he went to Weight Watchers?) Further away from our image today, he was portrayed wearing a bishop's robe or even with an animal skin like a Norse hunter. Clement Moore, the man who wrote “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (as it was titled by him originally), had referred to him in his famous poem as an “elf” i.e., "He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf." An artist named Thomas Nast had illustrated this Santa as envisioned from the poem for Harpers Weekly magazine. Nast took our image another step further by eventually depicting him as living in the North Pole and using elves in his workshop.

The Beginnings of The Coke Santa

In 1930, artist Fred Mizen had painted a Santa Claus for use in various print ads for the Christmas season, including the Saturday Evening Post. Santa was depicted as a department store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. The department store happened to be Famous Barr Co. in St. Louis, Mo. (a division of May Company). And, this particular depiction happened to be the worlds largest soda fountain at the time.

An executive named Archie Lee, from the D'Arcy Advertising Agency, also in St. Louis, MO at the time, was working with The Coca-Cola Company. He wanted their next advertising campaign to show a wholesome Santa as both realistic and symbolic. As a result, in 1931, the Coca-Cola Company commissioned an artist by the name of Haddon Sundblom to create the figure we all know today as Santa Claus. They had wanted to develop advertising images using Santa Claus—but their idea was to show Santa as more of a real character with a real personality. Fred Mizen had depicted him as more of a man dressed as Santa.

Santa As We Know Him

But Coca-Cola changed the appearance and image of Santa Claus for good when they hired the D'Arcy Advertising Agency and executive, Archie Lee to create a Christmas advertising campaign to show a more wholesome and rotund Santa as a very real and symbolic Santa Claus. In 1931, Haddon Sundblom began developing his images of Santa Claus. (It has been rumored that Santa was put in red by Coca-Cola's artist because red was the color of Coca-Cola, however Santa did appear in a red coat prior to Sundblom's depiction. Santa had been previously illustrated showing a red coat and hat with furry white trim as early as 1908, but the Coca-Cola Santa is the image we all know today.

From 1931 to 1964, Coca-Cola advertising featured Santa delivering and playing with toys, raiding refrigerators and clutching anywhere from one bottle to multiple bottles of Coke, but generally he was taking a brief "pause to refresh."

The original and beautiful oil paintings painted by Sundblom were also adapted for Coca-Cola advertising in magazines. The first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, the Ladies Home Journal, National Geographic, The New Yorker and more. The paintings which are highly valued today by collectors, were also adapted for store displays, billboards, posters, calendars and even plush dolls.

Coke's campaign was an instant hit and reappeared each and every season. In the beginning, artist Haddon Sundblom painted the image of Santa using a live model -- his friend, Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman. When Prentiss passed away, Sundblom began using himself as a model, painting while looking into a mirror. After the 1930s, he used photographs to create the image of St. Nick.

People loved the Coca-Cola’s Santa so much, and took such notice of the detail in the ads, that if anything changed in the images, the public would send letters of concern to Coca-Cola. One year, Santa Claus appeared without a wedding ring, causing fans to write and ask Coca-Cola what happened to Mrs. Claus. Another year, evidently Santa's large black belt was backwards in the drawing (probably because artist Haddon Sundblom had used himself as a model and the belt buckle appeared in reverse as he drew himself in the mirror.)

Artist Haddon Sundblom


A Lasting Legacy

Mr. Sundblom continued to create new warm and colorful images of Santa Claus for 33 years until 1964. Even since that time, Coca-Cola has continually featured Santa’s image based on Sundblom’s original paintings. While Mr. Sundblom died in 1976, the many original oil paintings by artist Haddon Sundblom are some of the most prized pieces of memorabilia in the archived collection of the Coca-Cola company in Atlanta, Georgia and can be seen in the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. Even the Louvre in Paris has exhibited the Coca-Cola Santa Claus art. Today the magazine ads found in many of the old magazines such as Look, Life, National Geographic and The Saturday Evening Post are widely collected and valued by Coca-Cola memorabilia lovers, including myself!


Sundblom's Art Work Was Not Exclusive to Coke

Today, Sundblom is recognized as a major influence on many of the well known pin up artist. In fact, quite a bit of his art is pretty risque when compared to the innocence and warmth created by his Coca-Cola work. His last work was for a 1972 cover of Playboy magazine where he illustrated a half dressed woman in a Santa Claus outfit, mocking his own Coca-Cola ads. His work also help define American Life and the American dream as much as any other artist including that of Norma Rockwell as his body of work for Americas largest companies is well documented including the creation of the "Quaker Oats" character on Quaker Oats boxes and work for Ford Motor.

Even as recently as 2001 the artwork from Haddon Sundblom's 1962 illustration was used as the basis for an animated TV commercial which starred Coca-Cola's well known Santa.

My Own Connection

As indicated in another article I wrote about the history and collecting of Coca-Cola memorabilia, my own dad worked for Coca-Cola in St. Louis for 40 years. As a retailer and retail consultant from St. Louis, I had actually worked for May Co. in St. Louis. I also spent many Christmas's at that particular Famous Barr in downtown St. Louis.

I am proud of the fact that Coca-Cola’s Santa had it’s birth in St. Louis, MO. Thanks to the Famous Barr ad, Coca-Cola's Santa has been an unparalleled and powerful image that continues to resonate and conjure up warm memories to this day. In fact, where would Christmas and Santa Claus be today without an imaginative and aggressive iconic St. Louis retailer to inspire Coca-Cola and it’s advertising agency to one of the most beloved and memorable images in American history as well as a good part of the rest of the world.

©2012 Retail Redefined and RetailRichez. All rights reserved.


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