The Greatest Story Ever Sold

Advertising campaigns have the power to create societal change.

Santa by Ollyy Randall Huft mg magazine Dec 2019
Image: Ollyy / Shutterstock

Throughout history, a few extraordinary advertising campaigns literally changed society. These tales have been told—and sold—to the masses and changed the course of human events.

To wit:
Four simple words, “Make America Great Again,” got a businessman and reality-TV star elected to the most powerful position in the world.

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MeToo is changing the value system of a nation by convincing women coming out of the shadows of harassment is safe.

In the 1930s and 1940s, De Beers’ diamond sales plummeted because of the Great Depression and because diamond rings were not fashionable with the younger generation. In fact, before World War II, only 10 percent of American engagement rings contained a diamond. To combat sluggish sales, De Beers introduced an advertising campaign with the slogan “a diamond is forever” in order to persuade consumers not only is an engagement ring an indispensable purchase, but also a diamond is the only acceptable stone for the setting. Today, more than 83 percent of engagement rings feature a diamond center stone. De Beers’ ability to move its market share from 10 percent to 83 percent is one of the greatest advertising successes of all time.

But perhaps the most compelling and world-changing marketing campaign ever was the selling of Christmas and the marketing of Santa Claus.

Christmas has its roots in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. Depending on the interpretation, Saturnalia was either a week-long period of lawlessness or a non-stop party celebrated between December 17 and December 25. During this period, Roman courts were closed and normal social patterns were suspended, thus inviting unrestrained debauchery.
Saturnalia was by far the jolliest Roman holiday. The poet Catullus famously described the period as “the best of times.”

Then, in the Fourth Century, Christian leaders appropriated the Saturnalia festival, hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. The problem was there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy the situation, Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25, to be Jesus’ birthday.

To this day, Christians worldwide celebrate Christmas as the birthday of Jesus, although many biblical scholars believe this was not likely the day or even the month of his actual birth. Nonetheless, the campaign to change the birthdate of the most influential figure in history was a huge marketing success.

But that was just the beginning. The way in which we celebrate Christmas in modern America largely was developed by two corporate giants.

Before Santa Claus, there was Saint Nicolas—a tall, skinny bishop who was honored as a patron saint on December 6. How he eventually became the pot-bellied fellow we know today is quite remarkable.

The condensed story is Nicholas of Bari, an early Christian bishop, became renowned for his generosity and patronage of the poor. The bishop’s legend as a giver of gifts gained traction after his death, and his relics eventually made their way to France, where he became the patron saint of Lorraine.

A hundred years later, the saint was well established in the culture and traditions of many countries, notably the Netherlands, where his Dutch name, Sint-Nicolaas, was changed to Sinterklaas.

But how did this austere saint, usually depicted as a tall, thin man accompanied by an angel, morph into Santa Claus, a bubbly red-cheeked, white-bearded, jolly old man?

While there were many hands in the transformation, one of the most influential figures was Clement Clarke Moore, who in 1823 penned a poem titled “A Visit From Saint Nicholas.” Today, the poem is better known by its first few words: “’Twas the night before Christmas.”

Moore described the Santa who is recognizable today and provided him with a slew of reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. Moore collaborated with Thomas Nast, a cartoonist working for Harper’s Weekly, and the duo created many of the features we now associate with Santa, including a toy workshop based at the North Pole.

Then, in the early 1930s, the Coca-Cola Company commissioned the illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images featuring Santa Claus. Sundblom’s drawings are pretty much the image we have today. Coke’s campaign ran for more than thirty years, enabling this view of Christmas to become ingrained in American culture.

Another American corporate giant, Montgomery Ward, is responsible for an additional famous chapter in the Santa mythology. Robert May worked at the department store and was instructed to write a cheery Christmas book to give away to shoppers. May decided to make a reindeer the central character of the book, and thus Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was born. Shoppers loved the poem. Within a few years, more than 6 million copies were given out for free.

Shortly thereafter, the president of Montgomery Ward gifted the copyright to the poem to May, who published it as a book. It became an instant bestseller. May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, penned a song based on the poem. The song was recorded by Gene Autry and went on to become one of the top-selling records of all time.

So, there you have it: a condensed history of how two American corporate giants, Coca-Cola and Montgomery Ward, transformed Christmas into the holiday we know and celebrate today.

And that’s a marketing success for the ages.

Happy Holidays.


Randall Huft is president and creative director of the Innovation Agency. He discovered what works, what doesn’t, and what steps must be taken to achieve sales goals and gain market share while working with blue-chip companies including AT&T, United Airlines, IBM, Walgreen’s, American Express, Toyota, and Disney. Inov8.us

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