The fact that Santa Claus – or at least the globally accepted image of him with a red coat and white beard – was invented by Coca-Cola as part of a 1950′s seasonal campaign is something that should irk me and my fellow advert deniers. He is, after all, one of the most exciting and beguiling characters of childhood and there should be something slightly unsavory about his popular origins stemming from commerce. It’s hard to resent Santa for this, though, as the jolly old fellow has remained in popular culture through his own means, as opposed to aggressive and intentional marketing.
This particular incarnation has entered into the public domain and is not the fiercely defended and trademarked image he could have become. Santa Claus, with his sack of toys and jolly laugh, is the international symbol for Christmas, and not just Coca-Cola. That said, it is still Coke who have the best representation of him, for while their adverts may be cloyingly sentimental and horribly saccharine, they come closest to what I remember wanting Santa to be like when I was a child. His rosy cheeks, earnest generosity and kindly appearance is, free from modern day cynicism and paedophile jokes, a bewitching image for a believer as he represents all that is remembered fondly from childhood.
He has been reimagined, recreated and reinvented many times over the years but few, I think, are as interesting as his appearances in this years Currys campaign. These initial cameos and, later, promotion to main character represent not only how Christmas dwindles and dies as the mind becomes adult, but also the shift in values and myth within modern society.
Let’s look at the evidence; the Santa of old ran and owned his own factory, handling the means of both production and distribution. The Santa of Currys is an employee in a corporate warehouse, selling other peoples products and shipping them through a third party. While before Santa would manufacture hand-made goods and simple toys, he now deals exclusively with electrical items and brand name products. The presents that Santa of yore handed out were crafted by indigenous peoples that used ethically sourced local materials, but Currys’ Santa works in an outside-the-UK factory dealing with products that have horrific electricity usage and are made by exploited third world countries.
It’s also worth noting at this point that Santa is now merely an employee of Currys, as opposed to before when he owned and ran a successful independent business. Far from being his own boss, he is now a uniformed employee presided over by two twenty-something metrosexuals who clearly believe their destiny is to provide cheaper TVs to the people. This is worrying for the future of Santa. It is as if his previous magical capability to sculpt toys for the worlds children is no longer enough, or can no longer survive in the modern cutthroat business world. Even though he carried no overheads per se, the odds of survival for a small business in the highly competitive Christmas market are slim and there appears to be no more room for the altruistic benefactor.
That he is reduced to working in a Currys distribution department speaks volumes about the job market for elderly gentlemen. While he was once a worldwide shipper, his lack of corporate experience has reduced him to factory line assembly, where the best idea he can come up with is to have products in stock when people turn up to pay for them. No doubt this demotion has had an effect on his personal politics too. Clearly once a great socialist believer, he has now fallen foul of capitalism and his gifts are no longer free, just reduced.
There is one glimmer of hope, though; in each advert he lets slip a little clue that he is really is Santa. Be it confessing a love of mince pies, a secret visit from a Blitzen or a veterinary trip for Rudolph he shines through with his true character; the false name of Klaus drops away and the dodgy German accent is forgotten… he is the Santa we know and love.
When you become an adult the wonder of Christmas fades away. Each year you hope it will be as magical and amazing as it was as a child, and each year you are numbed by the crass commerciality of it all. The Santa of Currys is much like that too; you suspect the worst but hope for the best. Maybe he isn’t broke and desperate, maybe he has infiltrated the enemy and plans to bring down the false idols of Playstations and plasma screen TVs. Maybe he is undercover and at midnight on the 24th will hijack their shipments, distribute the goods himself and refund the exorbitant prices. Maybe he is a new guerilla Santa – a master of disguise, of espionage and of infiltration. This is the new Santa, the Daniel Craig of new Santas… not only does he inspire delight and offer hope, he also kicks ass and sets right what keeps going wrong.
What I suspect will happen though, is that he’ll talk up the January Sales and get fast tracked up the management ladder. The Coca-Cola Santa would never go corporate…