Santa Claus: The Frankenstein's Monster of Madison Avenue

Categories: Media, WTF?
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By Peter Jamison

Like many of my colleagues in the blogosphere, I've repeatedly found myself unsettled this holiday season by the appearance of a freakish new incarnation of Santa. This vest-sporting and dubiously gendered hipster isn't to be found, as you might expect, after midnight at Pop's. Rather, he (?) is the figurehead of a new ad campaign from telecoms giant Sprint and the Palm Centro phone.

There's a lot not to like about this fellow. I could go on and on, but it's better that you just take a look. Still, it's fair to ask: Is one Santa better than another, particularly when both are confections of the advertising industry?

According to Lori Dorfman, director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, even the rotund Santa we know and love is largely the work of American commercial artifice. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the artist now known as Santa existed as various figures of European folk legend, such as Father Christmas and Saint Nick, Dorfman said.

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Then Coca-Cola came along.

"Santa Claus didn't use to be so red, and he didn't use to be so fat," Dorfman told SF Weekly. In artwork commissioned in 1930s advertisements, Dorfman explained, "Coca-Cola sort of took over Santa Claus -- and used their color red -- to reconfigure him into the jolly old Santa Claus we know today."

Does Dorfman think a newer version of Santa, such as the latest abomination from Sprint, stands a chance of displacing his (?) predecessor? "From a marketer's perspective," Dorfman said, "anything you can do to make your product the norm is what they're after." In the spirit of Christmas, I sure as hell hope they fail.


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