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5 Ways Business Changed Us for Profit

How we celebrate Christmas
Did Coca-Cola (KO - Get Report) craft the iconic imagery we use to celebrate Christmas?

Although Sana Claus, in his many forms and names, has existed in times and places unaffected by Coke's marketing muscle, the company has nevertheless played a role in the modern image of St. Nick that is inescapable every winter.

In fact, it is a point of pride for the beverage company.

"Most people can agree on what Santa Claus looks like -- jolly, with a red suit and a white beard," the company boasts on its corporate Web site. "But he did not always look that way, and Coca-Cola advertising actually helped shape this modern-day image of Santa."

Starting in 1931, magazine ads for Coca-Cola (which began in the Saturday Evening Post) featured St. Nick as a kind, jolly man in a red suit. That particular image was crafted by artist Haddon Sundblom.

"Because magazines were so widely viewed, and because this image of Santa appeared for more than three decades, the image of Santa most people have today is largely based on our advertising," Coke says. "Through the centuries, Santa Claus has been depicted as everything from a tall gaunt man to an elf. He has worn a bishop's robe and a Norse huntsman's animal skin. The modern-day Santa Claus is a combination of a number of the stories from a variety of countries."

Coke does give credit where due to Civil War-era cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew a popular image of Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly back in 1862. In his version, however, Santa (in addition to being a Union supporter) was small and elfin.

So why did Coca-Cola get into the Santa game? The answer is simple: seasonal market share.

The product had always been considered a warm-weather beverage. In 1922, an ad campaign ("Thirst Knows No Season") tried to break it free of calendar-dictated restraints. From there, crafting Santa as a wintertime spokescharacter seemed a savvy move.

A 1930 ad featured a department store Santa gulping down a coke. The following year, ad executives decided that the "real" Santa made a more compelling focus and the new image was crafted, in part, from passages in Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas. The imagery has been a Coke tradition ever since, although the company does admit one important detail was not its doing.

"It's a common misconception that Santa wears a red coat because red is the color of Coca-Cola," Coke's history of Santa says. "In fact, Santa appeared in a red coat before Sundblom painted him for Coca-Cola advertising."

There is also this awkward admission: The "Sprite Boy character, who appeared with Santa Claus and was used in Coca-Cola advertising in the 1940s and '50s, was also created by Sundblom. Though The Coca-Cola Company does have a drink called Sprite, the Sprite Boy character was not named for the beverage. Sprite Boy's name came because he is a sprite -- an elf."

Sprite Boy first appeared in ads in 1942, while the drink Sprite was not introduced until the 1960s.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont.

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