PR and Advertising – Santa Claus Edition

By Matter

These comparative posts are often presented as PR vs. advertising as if the two were in a Thunderdome of marketing budgets. At their best, both disciplines are very powerful, and neither does the other’s job particularly well. The time to consider which practice to use is well before you hit budgeting — it’s when you identify the need. While both are effective means to influence public perception, the effects are not similar. You can see it pretty clearly for yourself in the story of how Santa Claus took his modern form.

Santa Claus — the large man with the snowy-white beard in a red suit that lives at the North Pole — is the result of two efforts to meet two distinct needs. The success in each resulted in a character with near global recognition and centuries of staying power.

The archetype of a solstice visitor bringing good cheer (in various forms and with various names) sprouted to help dispel the gloom of winter in the near arctic regions of western Europe. Some versions were children, some were religious, some were gift-givers. The need was not global agreement, but making the bleakest part of the year a bit more hopeful. You might call it a stretch to say Santa was a PR stunt, but none other than Martin Luther (who knew how to create a stir with the written word) co-opted the local and increasingly secular St. Nicholas traditions, celebrated earlier in December, to draw more attention to the feast that marked Jesus’ birth.

The beginnings of Santa Claus were grass roots, word of mouth, owned by the community and earned propagation by sharing value with the audience. It was passing ownership of ideas that enriched everyone. That sounds a lot like PR. As the stories ran into each other — particularly in America, where many traditions from around the world met and mingled — the stories adapted and the versions that best met the goal of keeping up holiday cheer continued.

Coca Cola had a different goal. The drink sold well in the summer when people were looking for refreshment, but in the colder weather, a hot cocoa sounded a whole lot more inviting. The company found its perfect seasonal counterpart in another white and red icon of good cheer. By investing heavily in tying its brand to a similarly bright and rosy Santa, the brand created a globally recognized version of the jolly old elf.

The advertising goal, connecting a product to the holiday season, required everyone to have the same associations with the season — a brute force tactic for a brute force need. A “Father Christmas” in his green robe (as was tradition in the British Isles) wouldn’t do because it was off-brand. Imagine Santa in an all-white robe. I can’t do it, but it’s certainly not less appropriate for a seasonal character that arrives with the snow. That’s how effective advertising can be in forcing an image into our collective heads.

So, as you consider your goals for 2012, consider Santa Claus regardless of the holidays you celebrate, and how you can best get your ideas spread around the world.