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When I was seven years old, I remember attending an after school program where we were assigned an odd activity: We had to mix granola with glitter and put it into a Ziploc bag.
This was followed by an even more odd instruction. We were told to sprinkle it on the driveway right as the sun began to set on Christmas Eve so that we could make sure it got there just in time for Santa’s reindeer.
Bright as I was, I decided that this wasn’t nearly enough granola. Not for nine four-hundred pound caribou who needed to spend twenty-four hours in near constant flight.
I went home and took an entire box of cereal out of the pantry, promptly mixing it with some glitter from a little vial and dumping it on the driveway. There was no rhyme, reason, or hesitation — I was committed to making sure Santa had a flawless experience at my house.
I still remember this story years later for the patent absurdity of it — it was just one of many questionable rituals I was told to perform in order to ingratiate myself with a mysterious figure in the Arctic who was somehow omniscient, in charge of judging the moral worth of children everywhere.
Like most other children, I didn’t ask questions. I was extra good in the weeks preceding Christmas. I helped my family decorate our little plastic tree, left out oatmeal cookies and milk, and even made sure to clear the path to our tree so Santa wouldn’t trip.
All to appease one man who I would never even meet.
As I zoom out, it begs a good question: Why do we lie to children and spend thousands of dollars perpetuating the falsehood of Santa, all while gambling with children’s self-esteem and forcing a pervasive desire to be particularly well-behaved in December?
What makes Santa such a force that all children are compelled to appease him no matter what?
As I deconstructed the absurdity of Santa, I realized there are a lot of patterns with our idolatry of Santa, marketing and human psychology. If you effectively think of Santa as his own brand, the growth of Santa Claus as a brand is not so different from many of our favorite products or multi-level marketing schemes.
Just like brands who have mastered scaled distribution through ambiguous promises, Santa has his own flywheel, one which we encounter as children and continue to spin as adults.
It’s a flywheel full of emotion, cognitive bias and a little deception — but one that has kept Santa alive for more than 200 years.
Let’s dive into the science of Santa Claus.
Where Did Santa Start?
To understand why Santa is as popular as he is, we have to go back to the evolution of the modern Santa.
It all started on December 23, 1823.
In the early 1800’s, Santa was mostly portrayed as a thin man dressed in green, focused on protecting sailors and children. He was based on the patron saint of Children, Saint Nicholas (Sint Nikholaas in Dutch -> Sinter Klaas -> Santa Claus) but didn’t really have a core visual identity.
The morning of the 23rd, all of that changed. A poem appeared in the New York Sentinel titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. Authored by Clement Clarke Moore, the poem gave Santa many of the defining characteristics we associate with him today:
- Santa drives a miniature sleigh, powered by eight reindeer (Pre-Rudolph era)
- Santa arrives on Christmas Eve and possesses supernatural abilities, jumping down the chimney at lightning speed
- Santa is chubby and plump with a round belly and a white beard
This image of Santa continued to serve as as the flagship inspiration for decades. When the Coca-Cola company began to look for ways to increase sales of their product during the winter, they hired an illustrator named Haddon Sundblom to brainstorm. Sundblom used inspiration from Moore’s poem to popularize Santa Claus in Coke’s advertisements.
Moore, Coca Cola and the many other artists throughout the years who doubled down on the image of Santa Claus began to cement his status as a concrete figure. They introduced the illusion of veridicality that made it harder for children to question: If Santa didn’t exist, why would he be everywhere?
Why would we have such defining characteristics?
Who would go through the trouble of making something like that up?
A defining identity is a core aspect of persuasive marketing. The identifiable victim effect in behavioral psychology, for example, is based on this idea: that concrete images and representations are often more powerful sources of persuasion than are abstract statistics.
You see this played out regularly on non-profit donation pages. Instead of the % of children that go hungry, organizations like to tell stories of individuals that are suffering, knowing that individuals have a tendency to change behavior when a specific, identifiable person is involved.
Clarity on Santa’s identity helps children visualize what he looks like, and gives parents an incentive. When you misbehave, they task the responsibility to Santa. Kids imagine a real person, someone they can see wagging their finger at them in subtle disappointment.
We also see this with other imaginary figures — the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny have become a big part of quotidian childhood traditions, purely from the fact that they have an identity and characteristic behaviors.
We’ve heard phrases like “Respect your elders” or “Treat everyone like you want to be treated” to guide our compass, but few actually spur behavior change as much as the threat of disappointing Santa.
It’s the same principle at work — we are activated by an identifiable person vs. a large, vaguely defined group. But there is a reason the Tooth Fairy doesn’t get us as joyful as the Christmas holidays. In Santa’s case, he gets a boost. A boost from the holiday spirit.
How Does Spirit Play In?
We’ve established that Santa’s identity is concrete and critical as a crutch to get children to behave. But there is another important aspect of Christmas that leads us to lionize Santa Claus: the emotional pull of Christmas rituals.
Back in August, I wrote about a concept called Somatic Markers, brain shortcuts that serve to connect an experience or emotion with a specific reaction.
What’s your first reaction when you see this gif?
What about this one?
If your empathy receptors haven’t been deadened yet by 2020, you likely feel some level of joy. Peace. Excitement. Anticipation.
Researchers believe there is proof that do in fact get happier just by looking at stimuli related to the holidays. In a 2015 experiment, researcher Brad Haddock found that the front of the brain lit up for those who celebrated Christmas, just by purely looking at images of Christmas. Haddock joked that there may even be a “holiday spirit network” in the brain.
The research also explains why it’s important to listen to Christmas music well before December even starts. (Totally kidding, the research doesn’t say this but what use is a newsletter if you can’t spread your own agenda once in a while)
There are lots of theories for why we get happier during the holidays. Gift giving, family bonding, evoking of nostalgia all play a role. One theory is that it allows us to relive our childhood. We believed in magic. We believed in the fantasy that was Santa.
Christmas evokes a feeling of freedom, of a visceral and optimistic childlike imagination.
That’s why carols give us goosebumps and Christmas lights give us butterflies.
Coca Cola may have understood the power of somatic markers before they were even given a name. It’s why we’re tempted to get cans of Coke with Santa on them — the beverage hasn’t changed as much as the feeling it triggers inside.
So we’ve established that Santa capitalizes on the emotional pull of the holidays and a visual identity — but what about the absurd Christmas rituals that perform for him, even well after childhood?
Why Do Christmas Rituals Attract Us?
Ultimately, as we grow up, we begin to decipher the truth about Santa. By the time we turn seven/eight, our curiosities about the North Pole and magic elves slowly turn into questions about physics — how can Santa possibly visit 1.6 billion houses in 24 hours!?
Still, we commit to the norms of Santa, commit to the norms of Christmas and commit to passing them on to future generations of children.
While kids may not understand the logic behind some of Santa’s magic feats, they also respond well to social proof. They want to do what other kids are doing, discuss Christmas ornaments at school, and make glitter-sprinkled granola at after-school programs. We’re incentivized by being part of the in-group.
It’s why children are exceptionally well-behaved in December, unwilling to be juxtaposed with the naughty kids. Cleaning rooms, caroling and decorating fake trees begin to signal appropriate behavior, to the point where they become basic behavioral expectations.
We regularly see average products that are popularized simply by social norms — Nike’s Livestrong bracelet that started off as a simple yellow band, yet turned slowly into an emblem of the cancer movement. Bitcoin went from an esoteric fad to a modern investing vehicle. Much of it from marketing.
At the end of the day, we’re not contrived robots that have to find some deeper meaning behind things we do — we’re malleable, emotional beings.
Our decision making is regularly influenced by local social networks and social norms. As long as all the absurdity of Christmas rituals happens to be part of our shared mental models, we don’t question them.
“Lack of skepticism is often the result of our social beliefs,” writes Psychologist Sia Mohajerin his book I’m Right, You’re Wrong. “When we encounter equally absurd belief systems in socially or historically-familiar contexts, they seem to have a measure of proof and be established or valid.”
In other words, it’s normal to believe in something that is completely made up — as long as a lot of other people do as well.
Santa’s Brand Flywheel
So what does Santa’s flywheel actually look like?
It includes the emotional sparks, imagery, and normative behavior we discussed prior — but one key mechanism completes the cycle for kids — the presents.
In return for committing to our belief in Santa, we get gifts. While we’re kids, these gifts continue to drive our belief that there is value in the absurdity, some light at the end of a tunnel of traditions that make no sense.
Once we learn the truth, we don’t stop. We still dive into the emotional associations of Christmas, stay looped into social norms and rituals and then have a choice to keep the magic alive for the next generation of children. At that point, it’s a not a hard choice. Why deprive our children of this?
The decision isn’t about honesty or deception. It’s about helping kids experience the entire bundle of what Christmas represents. We become evangelists: We introduce our children to the image of Santa Claus, force them into the same absurd norms, and perpetuate this cycle in the hopes that they too, when they uncover the truth, will continue to spin Santa’s flywheel.
So is there a marketing lesson in all this absurdity?
Just like Santa, good marketing attempts to capture the seasonal zeitgeist — and just like Santa, the transactional value and subsequent evangelism is what separates the winners from the losers.
Apple is a great example — they made all the right moves from a marketing perspective in the early 1980s, won acclaim for their 1984 ad and revolutionized the personal computer as an instrument for recreation. But their Macintosh ultimately crashed due to slow speed, limited range of available software, and limited endorsements from other programmers of the day. It wasn’t until Apple became a tool of the everyday consumer — from the Ipod to the Iphone — that Apple’s brand took off.
While it’s disingenuous to compare Santa to any real product or company, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to copy Santa’s formula.
Marketers can use the identifiable victim, somatic markers, or social proof as tricks in almost any campaign — but if Santa has taught us anything, all those tricks are hot air if the product itself doesn’t deliver and doesn’t push it’s advocates to become evangelists.
And if Santa has taught us anything else, it doesn’t hurt to have a little deception along the way.
The flywheel above was generously provided by my friend Jake Singer, who regularly writes about product flywheels on his newsletter The Flywheel. If you’re curious how companies like Stitch Fix, Zoom, and LuluLemon innovate through repeating behaviors that drive growth, check it out. A newsletter I highly recommend if you have no idea how some of these companies are planning to make money. New flywheels = satisfied curiosity.