For many, the arrival of the festive season is marked by the annual re-emergence of a televisual advertising phenomenon which has captivated generations. Coca-Cola’s Christmas promotion has become synonymous with the spread of merry cheer; the familiar sight of red trucks adorned with spellbinding luminosities weaving into view signals the commencement of what is for many the most joyful time of the year. Festooned upon these glowing wagons are images of a white-bearded, red-suited, jolly old Saint Nicholas – an iconic image which has come to define the modern Santa Claus. The man responsible for this was Haddon Sundblom.
Born in 1899, in Muskegon, Michigan, Sundblom – known as ‘Sunny’ – would go on to arguably define 20th century advertising illustration. Raised in a Swedish speaking family, with his nine elder siblings, Sundblom dropped out of school at just thirteen in order to help provide for the family following his mother’s premature death. Despite a difficult adolescence Sundblom persevered and continued to educate himself. Years of night school study at the Chicago Art Institute would lead to admission to the American Academy of Art.
Formation of his own advertising agency, along with two contemporaries in 1925, resulted in Sundblom boasting a client list which included the likes of Palmolive, Maxwell House, Goodyear Tires, and Whitman Chocolates – Sundblom’s work was splendidly received in what was a golden age of poster and billboard advertising in the United States. However, it was his work with The Coca-Cola Company in the 1930’s which would come to make him a household name in American advertising.
Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem, ‘A Visit from St. Nicolas’ – more commonly known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ – would provide the description to which Sundblom would design his Santa Claus upon. Moore’s depiction of Saint Nicholas was a humanising process; a drawing of a warm, friendly and pleasantly plump figure was produced. Sundblom conceived this concept in a visual form; the portrayal of a wholesome, gentle, loving grandfather emanated from his illustrations.
This was a stark contrast to historical incarnations of an elderly, stately and serious man that had appeared in Dutch and Scandinavian folklore since the 18th century. However, Sundblom’s Santa is more reminiscent of the English Father Christmas: the 16th century figure was epitomised as a bearer of gifts and an emblem of merriment and delight. Sundblom succeeded in marrying earlier conceptions and influences to create a universal interpretation of the magical Santa Claus.
Indeed, it is easy for Sundblom to be branded as the Coca-Cola painter, but this trivialises his standing in 20th century advertising art. His work arguably defined the American Dream in pictures, shown by his work for almost all the Fortune 500, America’s largest corporations. In many circles he is known simply as ‘the greatest advertising illustrator of them all’.
Moreover, Sundblom would display his racier side, his Santa portraits were often punctuated with paintings of pin-ups and glamour pieces for calendars; today he is recognised as a major influence for pin-up artists. One of Sundblom’s final assignments, in 1972, four years before his death, was a front-cover painting for Playboy’s Christmas issue; the Santa painter had demonstrated the true range of his talents.
Nonetheless, it is Sundblom’s Christmas imagery that arguably defines him. Initially, the Coca-Cola Santa’s cheerful face was modelled upon Sundblom’s friend, a retired salesman by the name Lou Prentiss. However, after Prentiss’ death, Sundblom would use his own face as the ongoing reference for his contemporary portrayals. Sundblom remarked that he felt the wrinkles upon his Santa’s face were ‘happy wrinkles’ – perhaps offering an insight into the man who continued to work, and insert magic into the holiday season, even in his twilight years.
The adage that ‘Coca-Cola invented Christmas’ is one that is contested and reiterated in equal measure in an age of commercial focus over religious appreciation. However, it is undeniable that for millions, the company’s Christmas message has become a staple of the festive period. The world over, children and parents can be found equally transfixed by the arrival upon their television sets of those florescent articulated Lorries, with the declaration that ‘holidays are comin’. The endearing face, which is adored and idolised the world over, embroidered upon the red wagons of awe is 82-years-old this winter. Haddon Sundblom’s modern-day St. Nicholas has proven, in accordance with popular belief, to be immortal – and as a result, Sundblom’s place as the most famous advertising icon in history may well be too.