It was an easier commercial fit in 1955 for makers of a laundry detergent who showed Santa dismayed by chimney soot on his nice red coat and proclaimed, “It’s a good thing that Tide keeps on working after other suds have quit!” but it was Haddon Sundblom’s famous paintings of Santa for the Coca-Cola Company that were the best examples of this technique of turning the gift-bringer into a product consumer. In the 1920s, the Coca-Cola Company was recovering from attacks by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the federal government, and other critics of its soft-drink formula. A U.S. senator had claimed in 1921 that the carbonated water beverage caused sterility in women and dissolved “brain power, and the digestive power and the moral fabric.” The company wanted advertising campaigns that emphasized relaxation and carefree refreshment and it also wanted to improve the sales of Coca-Cola during the winter months. To these ends they turned to a Chicago illustrator named Haddon Hubbard Sundblom, a hard-drinking, six-foot-three commercial artist who was able to capitalize on the well-established image of Santa Claus that existed by 1931.
It is far too frequently believed that Sundblom’s work for Coca-Cola created the familiar red-and-white-clad Santa of the modern era. In fact, the Coke Santa was in no way groundbreaking; illustrators for the Saturday Evening Post
such as J.C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell had already helped fix the standard Santa in the public’s mind.* Nor was the Atlanta company even the first purveyor of soda to use the gift-bringer in its ads. That honour belongs to the White Rock Natural Mineral Spring Company of Waukeshar, Wisconsin, which advertised mineral water and ginger ale in Life
magazine in 1923 and 1924. Two full-page ads show a portly Santa Claus, reading letters and delivering presents, with a bottle of White Rock and (despite Prohibition) a whisky bottle close at hand. In these presentations Santa closely resembles the gift-bringer the New York Times
described as the prototype in its November 27, 1927, issue: “Height, weight and stature are almost exactly standardized, as are the red garments, the hood and the white whiskers. The pack full of toys, ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows and a jolly, paunchy effect are also inevitable parts of the requisite makeup.”
Sundblom’s genius in his decades of work for Coca-Cola was not that he added anything to our knowledge of Santa Claus but that he made a familiar image even more likeable and widespread. Sundblom’s vision of the gift-bringer emphasized lavishness and self-indulgence. In the middle of the Depression, he scorned the meagre street-corner and department-store Santas to produce one who was the roliest-poliest yet, clad in an abundance of furs, with a jaunty angle to his white moustache, and a penchant for raiding other people’s refrigerators. Sundblom’s early paintings such as “My hat’s off to the pause that refreshes
” and “Away with a tired thirsty face” continued the notion of Coke as an almost-medicinal pick-me-up, but it was his “Me too” (1936) that introduced the theme of Santa Claus as an out-of-control consumer. Here he is portrayed with his red jacket off, making himself at home in an unsuspecting family’s living room, playing with the toys under the Christmas tree, and lifting a wasp-waisted bottle to his lips. He is even more brazen in the next year’s campaign. A shameless Santa has raided the family’s supply of Coke and he has ripped a drumstick from the Christmas turkey, justifying his theft with a specious plea to reciprocity: “‘Give and take’ say I.” Later campaigns would try to soften this image of a midnight raider, implying that Santa Claus had been left bottles of Coke by a grateful family. In 1938, he approvingly notes, while holding a bottle, that “Somebody knew I was coming”; in 1943, he relaxes in an armchair holding a note that reads, “Dear Santa, Have a ‘Coke’ = welcome at our house. Your Pal xxx”; and in 1945, even before entering the house, Santa has spotted a familiar bottle and letter and remarks smugly, “They knew what I wanted.”
There is no evidence that these advertisements ever led to a nation of children preparing a plate of cookies and a bottle of Coke for the gift-bringer, but the ads were enormously popular and became a part of the North American Christmas landscape. Sundblom produced at least one a year from 1931 to 1964, and at one point his work graced half of all of Coca-Cola’s billboards. His first model was Lou Prentice, a retired neighbour, and after Prentice’s death in the late 1940s Sundblom used himself as the image of Santa Claus. (Though Sundblom was credited for these attractive renditions of Santa, he was not allowed to paint the bottle of Coca-Cola itself. He was commissioned to deliver his canvases unfinished so that another artist with a finer touch could add a flawless image of the bottle, including the line of text asserting its trademark and patent.) The overwhelming ubiquity of these advertisements — with the Coca-Cola-swilling Santa Claus presiding over busy street corners from his perch on billboards, to life-sized cutouts positioned in strategic store aisles, to his face in magazines found in living rooms and bathrooms across the nation, and nowadays to a host of retro “collectibles” hawked on eBay — ensured that no rival version of Santa could emerge in the North American consciousness.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Santa Claus by Gerry Bowler. Copyright © 2005 by Gerry Bowler. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.