Analysis Christmas 2009: Christmas Fayre

Santa Claus: a public health pariah?

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b5261 (Published 17 December 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b5261
  1. Nathan J Grills, public health fellow12,
  2. Brendan Halyday, illustrator 3
  1. 1Monash University, Department of Epidemiology and Preventative Medicine, Commercial Road, Melbourne, Vic 3000, Australia
  2. 2Department of Health, Victoria, 3000 Australia
  3. 3Level 1/95 Johnston St, Collingwood, Vic 3066, Australia
  1. Correspondence to: N J Grills nathangrills{at}gmail.com

    Santa Claus is a well known and loved character, but Nathan Grills and Brendan Halyday question whether he is a healthy role model

    Santa Claus long ago displaced the Virgin Mary and baby as the most unmistakable Christmas iconography. A recent study among hospital inpatients concluded that awareness of Santa was near universal.1 Given Santa’s fame, he has considerable potential to influence individual and societal behaviour—and not necessarily for good. Santa is a late adopter of evidence based behaviour change and continues to sport a rotund sedentary image. But this is not the only example where Santa’s behaviour and public image are at odds with contemporary accepted public health messages.

    Advertising to children

    Eric Schlosser and Morgan Spurlock have both described how McDonald’s used Ronald McDonald to target their products at children by creating an association between McDonald’s food and happy times.2 3 Spurlock showed how Ronald McDonald was more highly recognised than the American president or the Pope.2 Interestingly, Schlosser documents that among American schoolchildren Santa Claus was the only fictional character more highly recognised than Ronald McDonald.3

    If Ronald McDonald can be so effective at selling burgers to children, we might expect Santa to be equally effective at selling other goods. After all, it was Santa’s advertising potential that reincarnated simple Saint Nicholas into the glory of a universally recognised icon. Santa’s contemporary image was cemented by the Coca-Cola advertisements that began in the 1930s.4 By the mid-1950s Santa had become the leading sales consultant for numerous other companies and products. Today, he is one of the biggest sellers at Christmas and appears in adverts on television, the internet, billboards, and shop fronts.

    Public health needs to be aware of what giant multinational capitalists realised long ago: that Santa sells, and sometimes he sells harmful products. …

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