VIEWPOINT: THE ANNALS OF ADVERTISING

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To move your product out of the store, you need to first move it into the consumer's imagination. For, as social scientists have shown, it is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your mind. This colonizing is often done by positioning your object near some calendar event. The big hand strikes 12 and your object jumps out like clockwork. You don't have to break through, you're already there.

The brass ring in advertising is, of course, to carry this off without detection. Some products have gotten themselves so deep inside the clock that they seem to have been there forever. Take the rhythms of passing through a day, for instance. Breakfast was a creation of the cereal companies (we used to eat dinner scraps to start the day); the coffee break used to be at 4 in the afternoon until the coffee roasters moved it away from tea time to the morning; the cocktail hour is an invention of the liquor industry; and the Ploughman's Lunch was introduced to the English in the 1960s not in the 16th century. You can see time being colonized in such campaigns as "Miller Time" and "The night belongs to Michelob."

But the best advertising time bomb by far is Coke's Santa Claus. You can keep Christ out of Christmas, but not Coke's Santa. This character, a weird conflation of St. Nicholas (a down-on-his-luck nobleman who helped young ladies turn away from prostitution) and Kris Kringle (perhaps a German barbarism of Christ-kintle, a gift giver) comes back like an I Love Lucy rerun. He has become so powerful that when kids are told he doesn't exist, their parents become depressed.

The jolly old St. Nick that we know from countless images did not come from folklore, however. He came from the yearly advertisements of the Coca-Cola Company. He wears the corporate colors -- the famous red and white -- for a reason. He is working out of Atlanta, not the North Pole. And while his polar bears may come from CAA, his marketing comes from the minds of MBAs.

In the 1920s the Coca-Cola Company was having difficulty selling its soft drink during the winter. They wanted to make it a cold-weather beverage. "Thirst Knows No Season" was their initial winter campaign. At first, they decided to show how a winter personage like Santa could enjoy a soft drink in December. They showed Santa chug-a-lugging with the Sprite Boy (the addled young soda jerk with the coke bottle cap jauntily stuck on his head).

But then they got lucky. They started showing Santa relaxing from his travails by drinking a Coke, then showed how the kids might leave a Coke (not milk) for Santa, and then implied that the gifts coming in from Santa were in exchange for the Coke. Paydirt. What positioning! Coke's Santa was elbowing aside other Santas. Coke's Santa was starting to own Christmas.

From the late 1930s until the mid-1950s, Haddon H. Sundblom had spent much of the year preparing his cuddly Santas for the D'Arcy Agency in St. Louis. He would do two or three Santas for mass-market magazines, especially The Saturday Evening Post, and then one for billboards and maybe another for point-of-sale items. The paintings almost always showed Santa giving presents and receiving Coke, sharing his Coke with the kids surrounded by toys, playing with the toys and drinking the Coke, or reading a letter from a kid while drinking the Coke left like the glass of milk. The headlines read "They knew what I wanted"; "It's my gift for thirst"; "And now the gift for thirst"; or "Travel refreshed." He's a little mischievous, not above lifting a turkey leg from the fridge and sitting down a spell in Dad's comfy chair with the soon-to-be "traditional soft-drink" of the season.

So complete was the colonization of Christmas that Coke's Santa had pushed aside all comers by the 1940s. He was the Santa of the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street just as he is the Santa of Tim Allen's more recent The Santa Clause. He is the Santa on Hallmark cards, the Santa riding the Norelco shaver each Christmas season, the department store Santa, and even the Salvation Army Santa.

Coca-Cola has been the happy beneficiary of this Darwinian struggle of images, and the company has celebrated its success each December by putting Sundblom's creation on everything. The Sundblom Santa is now on Christmas cans of Coke Classic, and he is part of an art show that is trucked around from mall to mall each holiday season (even to the Louvre!). He even has his own Web site, and he's the hero of his own television commercial.

As the horror films promise, he'll be coming around again. Keep watching the

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