Did Coca-Cola invent Santa Claus? The answer, of course, is no since various illustrated depictions of Saint Nick have existed for centuries. The beverage brand might not have created the holiday icon, but they did work with an illustrator who can be credited for reshaping his appearance: Haddon Sundblom. Break out the bubbles (carbonated Coke bubbles, that is) and join us for a look through the decades at how Sundblom was inspired to paint the holly jolly fellow we know and love today.
1930s: Santa, Rebooted
The Coca-Cola Company started using Santa Claus imagery in their advertisements in the 1920s. The earliest Santa drawings were strict in appearance, inspired by the depictions of Santa Claus created by Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast. In 1930, artist Fred Mizen drew a department store Santa for Coca-Cola’s holiday print ads. Santa had on his red suit, beard, and drank from a Coke glass in this painting, but something was missing. He lacked that special spark of warmth and holiday magic.
It was time to hit refresh on Santa. Archie Lee, executive at D’Arcy Advertising Agency, worked alongside Coca-Cola in 1931 for a campaign that would highlight a new kind of Santa. He would be symbolic and realistic, not a man playing dress up in the big red suit. Lee and Coca-Cola commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to paint the initial advertising images.
Sundblom sought out inspiration for the drawings from a familiar place — Clement Clark Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” (Also commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”) Sundblom drew from Moore’s description for his painting, capturing his twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, round belly, and merry grin to make a gentle and human Santa Claus. His Santa made his debut in 1931’s Coca-Cola advertisement “My Hat’s Off to The Pause That Refreshes.”
All throughout the 1930s, Sundblom drew Santa in a natural state. He enjoyed Cokes instead of the traditional milk and cookies snack, played with the toys he delivered, and embraced children that stayed up late to meet him. Lou Prentiss, a retired salesman and a friend of Sundblom’s, served as the live model for Santa in the early days with Sundblom later using his own self as a model after Prentiss passed away. Sundblom’s Santa was an instant hit with audiences and for the brand, providing a nation whose spirits had been crippled by the Great Depression with hope and delight.
1940s: The Introduction of Sprite Boy
In 1942, a new character began accompanying Santa in Coca-Cola ads named Sprite Boy. Developed by Lee and drawn by Sundblom, Sprite Boy was an elf-like figure that was only ever seen with his head and hands. Stars surrounded him as a representation of the bubbles in Coca-Cola and he switched from wearing a soda jerk’s cap and a hat that looked like a bottle cap in his advertisements. Contrary to what you might think, Sprite Boy never appeared in ads for Sprite soda (which was introduced in the 1960s). His purpose throughout the 1940s and 1950s was to connect the Coca-Cola brand name with “Coke,” its popular nickname with consumers.
1950s — 1960s: A New Agency and Final Santa Paintings
By 1956, Coca-Cola was in the hands of ad agency McCann-Erickson. However, Sundblom continued to create his Santa illustrations for the brand until his final version in 1964 “Things Go Better with Coke.”
For decades afterwards, Sundblom’s Santa could still be seen on Coca-Cola packaging, advertisements, and commercials. Speaking of commercials, did the Sundblom Santa ever get a moment to shine in a nationally televised spot of his own? As it turns out, he did! Academy Award-winning animator Alexandre Petrov brought the icon to animated life in a 2001 spot inspired by Sundblom’s 1963 advertisement.