A Brief Ad History of Santa Claus, the Greatest Ambassador

The icon of December represents so many categories

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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.

Traditional ambassador filters don’t apply. It’s not simply because the legend of him being is based on a real saint. It’s because of the purist halo of an exceptionally well-woven story. The lovable man who works in the North Pole is the ultimate champion and protector of kids who makes sure that his elf army gets billions of gifts ready before Christmas. Movies like Miracle on 34th Street push the narrative even further. Just this year Netflix released five Christmas specials and thousands of brands launch new Christmas content every year.

Adaptive essence

Santa’s surge is evident with such liberal approach allowed to its believers unlike the usual brand mascot where one unlicensed use can ensue million dollars suing: a Santa DJ, a bartender Santa, a cosplay Santa. The character is in public domain alike for all brands and as much as it limits exclusivity, it promotes boundless creativity—and advertising.

The industry keeps adapting the fable for every generation. Just last year Zillenials watched Santa’s genesis story through Netflix’s Klaus, both effortlessly reinvigorating the beautiful myth. As the 2018 Santa Audi ad concludes: “Progress is rewriting your own story.”

For the ages to come, Santa will be the eternal heirloom of memories passed from one generation to another. And the baton of this feel-good ambassador will be generously shared by corporations like Coke, Cadbury to Cartier. Merry Christmas!