Though he was not the first artist to create an image of Santa Claus for Coca-Cola advertising, Haddon Sundblom’s version became the standard for other Santa renditions and is the most-enduring and widespread depiction of the holiday icon to this day. Coca-Cola’s Santa artworks would change the world’s perception of the North Pole’s most-famous resident forever and would be adopted by people around the world as the popular image of Santa.
In the 1920s, The Coca-Cola Company began to promote soft drink consumption for the winter holidays in U.S. magazines. The first Santa ads for Coke used a strict-looking Claus. In 1930, a Coca-Cola advertised with a painting by Fred Mizen, showing a department store Santa impersonator drinking a bottle of Coke amid a crowd of shoppers and their children.
Not long after, a magical transformation took place. Archie Lee, then the agency advertising executive for The Coca-Cola Company, wanted the next campaign to show a wholesome Santa as both realistic and symbolic. In 1931, the Company commissioned Haddon Sundblom, a Michigan-born illustrator and already a creative giant in the industry, to develop advertising images using Santa Claus. Sundblom envisioned this merry gentleman as an opposite of the meager look of department store Santa imitators from early 20th century America.
Sundblom turned to Clement Moore’s classic poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) for inspiration:
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow
The ode’s description of the jolly old elf inspired Sundblom to create an image of Santa that was friendly, warm and human, a big change from the sometimes-harsh portrayals of Santa up to that time. He painted a perfectly lovable patron saint of the season, with a white beard flowing over a long red coat generously outlined with fur, an enormous brass buckle fastening a broad leather belt, and large, floppy boots.
Sundblom’s Santa was very different from the other Santa artworks: he radiated warmth, reminded people of their favorite grandfather, a friendly man who lived life to the fullest, loved children, enjoyed a little honest mischief, and feasted on snacks left out for him each Christmas Eve . Coca-Cola’s Christmas campaign featuring this captivating Santa ran year after year.
As distribution of Coca-Cola and its ads spread farther around the world, Sundblom’s Santa Claus became more memorable each season, in more and more countries. The character became so likable, The Coca-Cola Company and Haddon Sundblom struck a partnership that would last for decades. Over a span of 33 years, Haddon Sundblom painted imaginative versions of the “Coca-Cola Santa Claus” for for Coke advertising, retail displays and posters.
Sundblom initially modeled Santa’s smiling face after the cheerful looks of a friend, retired salesman Lou Prentiss. “He embodied all the features and spirit of Santa Claus,” Sundblom said. “The wrinkles in his face were happy wrinkles.” After Prentiss passed away, the Swedish-American Sundblom used his own face as the ongoing reference for painting the now-enduring, modern image of Santa Claus.
In 1951, Sundblom captured the Coca-Cola Santa “making his list and checking it twice.” However, the ads did not acknowledge that bad children existed and showed pages of good boys and girls only. Mischievous and magical, the Coca-Cola Santa was not above raiding the refrigerator during his annual rounds, stealing a playful moment with excited children and pets, or pausing to enjoy a Coca-Cola during stops on his one-night, worldwide trek. When air adventures became popular, Santa also could be caught playing with a toy helicopter around the tree.
Haddon Sundblom passed away in 1976, but The Coca-Cola Company continues to use a variety of his timeless depictions of Saint Nicholas in holiday advertising, packaging and other promotional activities. The classic Coca-Cola Santa images created by Sundblom are as ubiquitous today as the character they represent and have become universally accepted as the personification of the patron saint of both children and Christmas.
As Joanna Berry, Lecturer in Marketing at Newcastle University Business School, explains: “Whilst Sundblom didn’t invent Santa as the jolly, white haired rotund old man we all now expect, he certainly did more than anyone to imprint that image onto our minds in relation to Coca-Cola in one of the most enduring brand images ever to have been created.”
A tribute to Haddon Sundblom from “Coke Side of Life” Campaign