Wholesome Marketing Ideas, Bite Size

Wholesome marketing ideas, bite size

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Santa Claus, The Real Thing?

Spoiler Alert: don't read if you believe in Santa Claus.

In the 1920s, The Coca-Cola Company was looking to nudge consumers into drinking more of its eponymous drink during the winter months, when sales traditionally slumped. In 1922 the company launched the “Thirst Knows No Season” slogan. 

Then someone hit upon the idea of associating the brand with that icon of winter, St. Nick (variously known as St. Niklaas, St. Niklaus, St. Nicolas, or even affectionately as Sinter Klaas in various parts of Europe), celebrated as a kids’ festival on December 6th.

But St. Nick was a religious icon, and what’s more, he was often depicted as a stern fellow. So the image required some tweaking. In 1931 The Coca-Cola Company commissioned an artist to paint a version of Santa that turned out to be “warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human,” as described on the company’s website.  Gone were the stern visage, and the bishop’s hat with the cross. 

This new image, invented for marketing purposes, is the one that has endured, and is replicated and perpetuated around the world. So while the company did not invent Santa Claus, no more than it invented polar bears (that now appear in Coca-Cola's advertising in the winter months instead of hibernating), it did popularize and indelibly imprint on our minds the image of Santa that is now ubiquitous. It is one among many iconic marketing images through which we see and experience the world.

How much of our cultural and social iconography, the landmarks and narratives by which we navigate the world, are built by marketing? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that so many of our cultural references were created by folks trying to sell us stuff?
Is marketing any more dominant today than it was at other times in history? Do we really live in a "marketing era" or is that just conceit? Have our social and cultural symbols and reference points not always been constructed in the service of persuasion? The Pyramids were built to glorify the ancient Egyptian dynasties and bring them closer to God in the afterlife, but on earth their purpose was marketing: to glorify the Pharaohs in the eyes of those that lived on. Was the cathedral at Chartres built in the glory of God, or to impress subjects into, well, subjugation? 

But does knowing that these monuments were built as marketing props affect our appreciation of the Pyramids or the cathedral at Chartres as works of immense beauty?

Similarly, does it really change anything to our enjoyment of the festive season if we know that Coca-cola invented our current image of Santa Claus -- or that the invention (usurpation/adaptation?) of the icon was commercially driven?

What if there were no Santa (in the entire culture I mean; in all cultures on the planet) -- would we not have to invent one? Are our lives not richer, more playful, more joyous because we have this shared icon? So let's say the people of the world got together and said, how do we create an icon, a mascot for the festive season? "Let's turn to the experts that have built other global icons - the marketers that sell Coca-Cola." And if the marketers at Coca-Cola come back and ask us to pay to get our Santa -- say by buying a few million bottles of cola every year -- would that not be worth it? 

Ho, Ho, Ho!

Photo Credit: Chartres Cathedral

1 comment:

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