5 Folklore Characters Created By Corporations
Advertising’s never met a bit of human emotion it can’t shoehorn itself into. If any image or tale brings the brain natural joy, you can be sure that some corporation is having an immediate all-hands to figure out how to tie that feeling to Dawn dish soap or some similarly inane product. If the trick works, that anecdote is now carrying a little parasitic advertising egg, one that’s going to eat away at it from the inside like wasp larvae until it’s taken complete control.
So when a bit of folklore lands in the crosshairs of a marketing firm, given a decade or two, that tale might find itself irreversibly warped into the form they chose to present it in. They may not have always “created” the character in the most literal sense, but the image that pops up in your head is one carefully created by a couple of ghouls with access to a focus group.
Here are five bits of folklore created, or at least heavily modeled, by corporations.
When it comes to Santa Claus, we’ve got a bit of a dilemma. It’s a common fun fact to spout that the modern image of Santa Claus was created by the Coca-Cola corporation. It’s such a widely accepted bit of did-you-know that for me not to include it would inevitably lead to questions about its exclusion in the comments. It is, unfortunately, not true.
He was, though, molded by marketing and advertising in general. The same way Disney sanded some of the unpleasant edges off stories like The Little Mermaid, so did corporations slowly jollify Old Saint Nick. Adweek put out a lovely graphic with a look at Santa in advertising through time, which includes an already red-suited figure as early as 1917, when he was hawking Murad Turkish Cigarettes. But in the original tales, Father Christmas could be wearing anything from green to red to blue, with a much more sternly religious look in general. He was also not always so rotund, pictured sometimes as a thin, elf-like man.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, there is another Christmas stalwart that was invented entirely by a corporation. To what might be great disappointment, I have to inform you that the adored, outcast reindeer known as Rudolph was conceived solely as a revenue stream.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created in 1939 as part of a promotion for the Montgomery Ward department store. Every holiday season, they would hand out coloring books for shoppers’ children, and the task of writing a poem to fill out those pages fell to Robert L. May. It wasn’t even a case of them contracting a poet or fiction author to create an enduring new story, as May was an in-house copywriter at the same company. The story, obviously, took off just like its titular character. Thankfully, this at least wasn’t one of the many cases where the creator was left penniless, as May was given the rights to the poem and character in 1946.
The tale of Paul Bunyan looms large, literally, in the pantheon of American folklore. The image of a strapping, beplaidded man with a barrel chest and a pet blue ox has bled into everything from paper towels to paperback smut. So it can be disappointing to know that someone who’s got connections to the strength and independence of the American worker was, in fact, invented as part of an ad campaign.
Now, like other entries on this list, Bunyan did indeed exist beforehand, but on a much smaller scale (I swear that some of these puns are unintentional) and certainly not as well-known. There’s evidence original tales came from a mash-up of a famously buff lumberjack named Fabian Fournier and another named Bon Jean, which eventually became Bunyan. Almost all the traits we associate with Bunyan in modern tales, though, including his inexplicable blue ox, come from a cartoon pamphlet distributed by the Red River Logging Company.
Again, we have a folklore character that, while seen in plentiful variety through history, has not only a single advertising campaign, but a single poster to thank for most people’s image of him. That character is the U.S. of A.’s enduring avatar, Uncle Sam. The character had formed naturally over the years, beginning with an off-hand army joke. Barrels of beef were supplied to soldiers by a meat packer named Samuel Wilson, and the military recipients started to joke that the U.S. stamped on the side stood for “Uncle Sam.”
His physical representation came from, weirdly, the British, where cartoonists at Punch magazine started drawing up a thin, white-haired and goateed fellow. That image was eventually incorporated into the heavy-handed world of metaphor known as political cartooning. The most iconic image, and the now undisputed universal reference point, though, was the famous “I Want You” poster drawn by James Montgomery Flagg. Given that it was reportedly in part a self-portrait, he managed to make himself the de-facto representative of the United States for the rest of history. Pretty good feather in the cap.
Now, if you’re saying to yourself, “but the U.S. military isn’t a corporation,” then, buddy, I’ve got some reading material for you.
Let’s take the last entry here to remind ourselves that the advertising industry is far from batting a thousand on beloved holiday characters. They definitely still have the capacity to create something strange and uncomfortable, that’s forgotten by the lucky, and a disconcerting memory for those that never did. Like the very brief face of the McDonald’s Shamrock Shake given a name that makes John Doe feel creative, Uncle O’Grimacey. You can see what he looks like in the picture above, but to be fair, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.