Contrary to popular mythology, Santa Claus was already popularly depicted in red before Coca-Cola began to use him in adverts in the 1930s. But Coca-Cola and their illustrator Haddon Sundblom – did create an image of Santa which featured heavily on billboards every year from 1931 onwards for the next thirty years and is still in use today. The cumulative effect of this advertising meant that the image of Santa Claus – which previously varied from country to country and region to region finally became defined and inescapable and no other image was possible. To children everywhere, The Coca-Cola figure was Santa Claus.
Films too helped to sell the image. By the middle of the twentieth century Santa Claus was a regular fixture in movies and regularly appeared as a guest character on TV shows. L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis all featured Father Christmas in stories and he was used in television adverts and posters to sell not just children’s toys and games but everything from shredded wheat and soap to fountain pens.
And some far more inappropriate things too.
He has been used to sell cigarettes:
Alcohol too is one of Santa’s advertising pleasures. Obviously everyone knows that Santa enjoys a sly tot of whisky when he drops by with the presents, but children would doubtless be shocked by the 1934 advert for Byrrh wine where Santa sits on a rooftop, swigging from a bottle and looking half-dead from intoxication. A beautiful angel kneels beside him and it is unclear whether she is joining in the fun or reading him the last rites. The image is supposed to suggest merry seasonal drinking but looks more like an alcoholic at his lowest ebb.
And what of the recent trend for Santa being used to sell sex? This too is old hat. A 1947 lingerie advert shows Santa cuddling up to a leggy blonde who is extremely keen to show off her purchases.
Sex, cigarettes and booze may paint Santa as a bit of a rogue but it is the gun adverts where it really gets disturbing.
Of course, it is unwise to jump to conclusions. Just because Santa is advocating guns doesn’t mean anyone is going to get hurt – except in the 1947 advert for Arrow shirts, which shows Santa aiming a gun into his own mouth ready to end it all in despair at the number of shirts he has to deliver due to the anticipated surge in Arrow’s sales.
Merry Christmas folks!
Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters by Paul Hawkins is available now from Simon & Schuster. The Illustration at the top is by Melissa Four and is taken from the book.