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In 1931, beverage giant Coca-Cola launched a certain campaign to remind people that their drink could be enjoyed not only in warm weather, but for all seasons. They sought to connect their product with a winter-time legend: Santa Claus. Due to the wide reach and ensuing popularity of the campaign, their chosen depiction of a plump, rosy-cheeked, jolly old man in a red suit was solidified into western culture. To this day, Coca-Cola still uses Santa Claus in their holiday marketing, but they are certainly not the only ones.
1955 Swedish Coca-Cola ad
So why choose Santa in the first place? And why have so many companies throughout the years increasingly followed suit in marketing with holiday characters? Being the jaded cynics that we are, many of us would simply point out that almost every holiday has become grossly commercialized to the point where, for example, days like President’s Day seem to have more meaning to car salesmen than to the average person. After all, do we spend St. Patrick’s day remembering the deeds of the patron saint of Ireland, or buying beer and lots of green merchandise?
In this same vein, surely the Easter bunny has very little to do with Easter, and is merely perpetuated by scheming chocolate manufacturers to sell more chocolate eggs and bunnies, right? Actually, stories of egg-laying bunnies have been around in the US since the 1800s, told by German immigrants to their children, gaining popularity over time. Similarly, various incarnations of Santa Claus have been told for many centuries in many parts of the world.
Embedded in this fact is the subtle reason why marketing campaigns surrounding fictional holiday characters have been so successful, and why they always seem to feel more distinctly genuine (and therefore all the more powerful) than the more fabricated attempts of holiday commercialization. The reason is simple: these stories are shared between generations. It’s no secret that parents struggle to have anything in common with their children’s generation. How many parents know the Harry Potter or Hunger Games stories like their kids do? And yet all generations seem to be aware of Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. My parents lied to me about the existence of Santa just like their parents did to them. These are the legends that, with lots of time and a little mass marketing, have become so engrained in society that they are shared by all ages.
Using these legendary characters is so easy that it’s almost expected. They are particularly effective when aimed at children, because kids are quite good at shaping their parents’ purchasing habits. In fact, children under 12 and teens influence parental purchases totaling as high as $670 billion a year. Put Santa Claus in the middle of a mall surrounded by all the toys you want to advertise, and parents will literally wait in line and pay to get themselves and their kids up close and personal to the exuberant toy campaign. The typical mall Santa can expect to see an average of 10,119 children per season, and as they carefully explain what toys they want, their parents will likely take notice and put it on their shopping list. Marketing success!
Of course, it doesn’t feel like they’re in a commercial, because the mall Santa is simply the societal norm. But don’t let your cynical side take over, because make no mistake, it’s not a disguise or a great conspiracy, it’s just the result of taking common, well-established stories and giving them a slight tinge of modern purpose. Marketers did not create these characters, but they did observe their value. It’s the value of a child asking for a giant chocolate egg laid by a bunny on Easter and his parent unquestioningly buying it (and contributing to the average $1.9 billion spent on Easter candy). Using holiday characters in marketing is simply an added cherry on top of a cake that’s already existed for years–a cherry that invites you to buy it.
So what’s next for holiday characters in marketing? Will Santa soon prefer Twitter and Facebook instead of letters to the North Pole? I’d say that it is unlikely that attempts of further modernizing existing characters will be met with much success as it may lead to a generational disconnect. It is also unlikely that new, religion-specific characters will appear, given the more secular, politically correct direction society has been heading in. This is already evident with some created a generation ago, such as Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the Grinch (all of which are not public domain, by the way). Following this trend, we may eventually see pop culture characters leading the charge, provided that a certain level of iconic status has been achieved. A Harry Potter Holiday perhaps?