A Brief Ad History of Santa Claus, the Greatest Ambassador

The icon of December represents so many categories

christmas history
From storybook to front and center of ads, Santa has a long trail of history. Ahbik Choudhury
Headshot of Abhik Choudhury

A Turkish Bishop, adored across Europe for his benevolence and repackaged centuries later by an American poet and a cartoonist, became the most popular brand ambassador on Earth. This is the Christmas spirit we have been sold in a million books, movies, plays, songs, jingles and ads. Santa Claus is the true epitome of brand recall across ages, strata, race and nationalities.

He’s touched every category, yet has remained untouched by the weight of their enduring shadows. This is the man who has emphatically advocated for all kinds of brands, from cigarettes to milk and sports retail to liquor with the same passion—and not once been out of business. Even during the Great Depression, he was selling chocolates and cold drinks. And for once and for all, Coca-Cola had nothing to do with inventing the modern, twinkle-eyed grandfather in festive red.

Inspired by Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas (1823), Thomas Nast painted the first contemporary image of Saint Nicholas for Harper’s Weekly (1863). In the illustration, Santa Claus arrives by sleigh at a Union army camp to distribute gifts. The first recorded advertisement was done by White Rock Waters in the December 19, 1915 issue of the San Francisco Examiner. Coca-Cola’s first Santa Claus piece appeared more than a decade later in December 1931. And 90 years later, the fact that they stuck with the same imagery and almost made it synonymous with themselves is a journey worth a book of its own. This year, Coke hired Oscar winner Taika Waititi to direct its Christmas advertisement where Santa drives a truck to reunite a dad with his daughter for the holidays.

So what makes Santa the poster boy of a religion, so timeless and irresistible, as well as a global ambassador of all things December?

Goodness is eternal

Humanity flourishes in the universal belief that random acts of kindness triumph in the end. Even movies made on sassier, bad Santas comfortably find their climax in preserving the spirit of Father Christmas. Even at our worst in 2020, we want to hold onto something that radiates goodness.

Santa, therefore, is that promise of love, which will never go out of fashion. Santa enjoys intergenerational loyalty, a dream for even the most iconic brands of them all. A plump message for brands to find novel ways to connect generations if they want to stay relevant through decades and not give in to only short term niche focuses.

Beyond methology

In 1956, Santa, owner of the world’s most famous beard, became the only brand ambassador to proudly sell something they would never use: electric shavers. The ad’s headline was “Only man this side of the North Pole who wouldn’t enjoy a Remington Rollectric.” Santa Claus was no longer a mascot that people saw in cartoons and ads; he had effortlessly become a part of everyday. There are a dozen Santa Claus training schools and revered pass outs earn as much as $250 per hour on Christmas day through corporate & sporting events, private parties and mall activations. (Some are even second generation Santas, making it a profession caressed by emotional value.)

The perfect story

For decades, Christmas almost became synonymous with smoking. Murad, Camel, Philip Morris, Richmond, Lucky Strike, Chesterfield to Raleigh shared Santa to sell nicotine. If Colonel Sanders, the other white-bearded icon to come out from America, sold condoms, promoted cigars, encouraged drinking and played abusing conmen in movies, how many months do you think the audience would have accepted him as the face of a fast-food chain frequented by high school and college kids? And yet that is the distinct charm of Santa.

Abhik Choudhury is chief strategist and founder at Salt and Paper Consulting.
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