Christmas Consumerism: The Origins of Santa, Rudolph and Elf on the Shelf

November 27, 2018 Victoria Pallien

Now that we’ve wolfed down our turkeys and devoured our pumpkin pies, consumers and marketers everywhere can prepare for Christmas and the admirable chaos that comes along with it.

The American image of Christmas features a few fictional characters created by marketing geniuses around the nation. From today’s version of Mr. Claus to elves sitting on shelves, our visualizations of the family-centered holiday wouldn’t be the same without marketing.

Santa Claus — Set Out Cokes Instead of Cookies

Saint Nicholas Santa Clause marketing coca-cola

Though derived from the classic Saint Nicholas, the jolly, round Santa Claus with a white beard, red coat and friendly smile was first popularized by American soda company Coca-Cola.

In 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop a wholesome, realistic and symbolic Santa Claus. Using the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas as inspiration, today’s pleasantly plump Santa was born.

Since the 1930s, Coca-Cola has depicted Santa in a long list of holiday campaigns. In 1937, eager children left Cokes out for Santa instead of cookies. In the 1940s, Coca-Cola added the “Sprite Boy” character (also designed by Sundblom), representative of an elf, to an ad that showed Santa taking a pause – ice-cold Coke in hand – from his busy night of delivering toys.

Note: There is much controversy regarding the true origins of red-suited Santa. Snopes says the Coca-Cola story is a false rumor, but Smithsonian and the Coca-Cola Company have published it as true.

Rudolph — Free Coloring Books to Drive Traffic

Each year at Christmas time, department store Montgomery Ward would give coloring books to children. In 1939, catalog writer Robert L. May was asked to write and design their annual holiday coloring book, and the red-nosed reindeer was introduced to the world.

That year, Montgomery Ward printed more than two million copies of their Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer coloring book. But it wasn’t until a decade later, after May had struggled on a copywriter’s salary, that Montgomery Ward gave May the rights to his story. In 1949, May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks turned the book into a song. The Gene Autry version topped the charts that holiday season. And in 1964, Rudolph was turned into a television special, which has been aired every year since.

Elf on the Shelf — From Family to Public

Elf on the Shelf Christmas marketing

Chanda Bell and her siblings grew up with a stuffed elf who sat on a shelf during the days preceding Christmas. The elf would sneak out each night to report the children’s behavior – good or bad – so Santa would know if the children belonged on the nice or naughty lists. Bell’s mother told her children not to touch the elf, or risk wiping off all its Christmas magic.

In 2003, Bell asked her mother to help write a story about their family tradition, but they had trouble finding a publisher for the final product. Deciding to go direct to consumer, Bell self-published her book and sold 5,000 copies, packaged with stuffed elves, at local markets and online. Two years later, actor Jennifer Garner was seen with her Elf on the Shelf kit, inspiring Today Show to cover this holiday tradition. And the rest, as they say, is history. What started as a sweet family tradition morphed into a worldwide phenomenon. As of last year, more than 11 million elf kits had been sold around the world.

Marketing Will Always Be a Part of Christmas

This year, brands will be marketing to vie for their pieces of the projected $1,007.24 each consumer will spend during the holiday season. Whenever there’s advertising competition, innovation takes center stage.

Be on the lookout for a holiday tradition being born this year. Although Google and Facebook are expected to rake in the biggest share of holiday advertising dollars, advertising on Amazon might be the most important trend we’ll witness. 82% of brands advertising on Amazon are planning Christmas-specific campaigns.

Reimagining your holiday marketing win?

Contact Digital Media Solutions today.

About the Author

Victoria Pallien

Victoria Pallien is a Marketing Communications Writer at Digital Media Solutions (DMS), the fastest growing independent agency focused on performance marketing. Since its inception, DMS has evolved into a full-service performance marketing company that services firms within highly complex and competitive industries including mortgage, education, insurance, consumer brands, automotive, jobs and careers. DMS has achieved incredible year-over-year growth, which has earned recognition on the Inc. 5000 list in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

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