How Coca-Cola helped shape the modern-day Santa

Where did the iconic Santa Claus imagery we have all come to know – red suit, pleasantly plump, flowing white beard, rosy cheeks – come from? Turns out, Coca-Cola's advertising program was more than a little helper in the modern interpretation of Saint Nick.

Eatocracy talked with Phil Mooney, the Coca-Cola Company's Vice President for Heritage Communications (also known as the “in demand Santa man”), to get the lowdown on the how the jolly man came to life.

Eatocracy: What is Coca-Cola’s connection with the modern-day Santa Claus?

Mooney: Coca-Cola had an artist named Haddon Sundblom who worked for us from 1931 to 1964. Each year he would create an advertising piece that would show Coca-Cola and Santa Claus and because the ads appeared in all of the popular magazines of the day, his interpretation became the American vision of what Santa Claus looked like.

Eatocracy: What were the paintings based on?

Mooney: The essence of the paintings were based on Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” Prior to Sundblom’s depiction, there were various interpretations of Santa in the mainstream media. In some depictions, he was a dwarf-like character, in others he was full-bodied but did not enjoy what he was doing. So that is where Sundblom built on the poem and created the happy Santa Claus who loves what he is doing, loves children, pets and has a bit of mischievousness in his character. He is the embodiment of the holiday – of a time to be with your family and friends.

Eatocracy: What was Coke’s purpose in using Santa?

Mooney: In 1931, Coca-Cola was trying to convince consumers that Coke could be consumed in the winter months as well as the summer months. Coke decided to be associated with the holidays by advertising Coke for the holidays. So the character of Santa was chosen because he has to go around the world in one evening and he is definitely going to get thirsty. So the campaign shows Santa pausing during the evening to enjoy a Coke.

This actual campaign ended in 1964 and Sundblom died in 1976, but each Christmas season Coke still uses a piece of his art so the original Santa promotional pieces continue the tradition today.