Coca-Cola is often given credit for two Christmas related accomplishments. First, Coke is said to be the first soda brand to use images of Santa Claus in advertisements. Second, the company is claimed to have invented the modern Santa Claus look of the portly white-bearded figure with rosy cheeks, a jolly smile; and a red and white costume with a black belt and boots — not to mention the Santa hat with the bob at the end.
Neither of these claims is true. As for the second claim, although there have been many depictions of Santa Claus in different cultures through the years, the Coca-Cola ads were not the first glimpse of the fixed modern image of Santa Claus. In fact, the red-suited jolly version was not the first image of Santa Claus to be used by Coca-Cola. Coke began using Santa Claus in ads as early as the 1920’s, but the Santa in these early ads was a more stern and serious looking figure.
The first “modern” Coke Santa is often said to be the 1931 drawing created by Haddon Sunblom, who continued drawing the ads until 1964. However, in 1930 Fred Mizen created a similar red-suited Santa drinking a Coke in a crowded department store. This Santa may not be as obviously Jolly as the later ones, but he’s not exactly the kidnapper of naughty children that some early traditions held.
However, this Santa was held to be a department store Santa impersonator. It is easy to see that if this was the image of Santa that impersonators used in those days, as it is doubtful that Coke would have used an unrecognizable Santa, the company could not have invented the depiction.
Thomas Nast, an artist for Harper’s Weekly, began drawing Santa in the later 1800’s. He didn’t necessarily settle on one Santa, but his 1881 drawing “Merry Old Santa Claus” will not look unfamiliar, with its pronounced cheek bones, smile lines and beard. Santa is dressed in fur and holds a creepy doll, but still…
Coca-Cola claims that “although many credit our modern Santa to Thomas Nast, Santa’s jolly look all started in 1931 with Haddon Sundblom and Coca-Cola. Although coke can certainly take credit for the final modern look of Santa, it is a stretch for them to take credit for being the first to make Santa jolly. The Santa of Thomas Nast was clearly Jolly, as were Santa images depicted before this time.
In 1885 appeared a post card drawn by Louis Prang, below. A happy Santa in a red suit (but a fur cap) rides a bicycle (the kind with the big front wheel and small back wheel). His reign-deer follow behind. Yes, Santa is jolly in this image.
Similar images with a red suit had appeared since the 1800’s, and the first Sunblom drawn ad appeared in 1931. Although is is doubtful that everybody shared the same exact image of Santa Claus before the yearly round of Coke Christmas ads began appearing, it is probably true that the red-suited Santa was already emerging as the preferred depiction before the first Coke ads appeared. Coca-Cola did not invent the modern Santa. The company may, however deserve credit for permanently stamping this image of Santa on the public’s consciousness.
In the first Sunblom ad, Santa, holds up a glass of Coca-Cola in his right, toasting the public with happy wrinkles and a jolly smile. His belt is brown leather, not black. The Coca-Cola glass shape, which still exists today as the archetypical Coke glass, was specifically designed by the company as a way to help soda-jerks mix the perfect Coke. Along with these images the famous slogan “The Pause That Refreshes” was used, one of the most successful slogans of advertising ever to appear, and which the company continued using for many years.
For all the Santa credit Coca-Cola might deserve, they were not the first soda to depict a jolly Santa figure enjoying a fizzy beverage! White Rock, who marketed a sparkling mineral water and a Ginger Ale, ran a Santa-Claus ad in Life Magazine in 1923. Santa is sitting at his desk reading a letter and smiling/laughing. An opened bottle of White Rock mineral water sits on his desk, near a glass with obvious bubbles. Interestingly, Santa also has an opened bottle of Whiskey on his desk during the height of prohibition! This is clearly a nod to both soda water and Ginger Ale being popular mixers for illicit liquors in those days, and the bottom of the ad reads “-also White Rock Ginger Ale.” Santa is Jolly for more than one reason, but unlike everybody else, he is immune to prohibition and doesn’t have to drink bootleg.
White Rock ran another Santa ad in 1924 and then another in 1925. Both show him enjoying a White Rock mineral water but mention Ginger Ale as a good choice. The 1925 ad mentions White Rock Pale Dry Ginger Ale. Dry ginger ale, a lighter less pungent and sweet style of ginger ale may have first been introduced by the Canada Dry brand, created by John McLaughlin of Canada and originally named McLaughlin’s Pale Dry Style Ginger Ale in 1904.
Even before the 1920’s, White Rock had been running black and white Santa ads such as in 1915 and 1916. In these ads, a Santa who is clearly wearing a modern style Santa suit is delivering, among his other goodies, White Rock Water. Instead of reindeer and a sleigh, he drives a truck in 1915 and flies a plane in 1916. It does not seem that Coca-Cola was the first soda brand to use Santa in advertisements.
Coca-Cola has said that it began running the modern Santa ads in 1931. If this is true, then White Rock depicted Santa in a similar way much earlier. Coca-Cola was undoubtedly aware of these ads. Yet, there is still a lot of debate as to who deserves credit for being the first to soda to show Santa in this modern way. Neither company, however, can really claim credit for inventing it. The modern look of Santa was an evolution, it is clear.
However, despite the fact that Coca-Cola may be taking too much credit for having single-handedly invented the modern Santa, the Coke Santa’s by Sunblom were clearly the most appealing and the most successful. They depicted a consistent and recognizable Santa, whose features we could see clearly. In these images, we don’t only see Santa as being happy with a Coca-Cola, but we begin to see him as always jolly, always ready to laugh. Once Coca-Cola took up Santa Claus, gone forever was the stern Santa who would punish naughty children. Santa meant happiness, and happiness was lined to Coke. They were also the first soft-drink brand to successful create an advertising campaign that caused consumers to think of a soda as more than just a summer beverage. Whatever anyone may claim about the origin of Santa, Coca-Cola’s advertising genius knew no equal.