Santa Claus is a well known and loved character who is the most unmistakable Christmas icon. Recently, though, a very interesting article in the British Medical Journal questions whether he is a healthy role model, for adults and especially, for children. Given Santa’s fame– its safe to assume that awareness of Santa Claus is near universal — he has considerable potential to influence individual and community health behavior. I had written earlier that pharmaceutical companies, especially MNCs, must work actively to build markets that they seek to enter as part of their growth strategy and not merely milk them dry. Icons such as Santa can play a lead role to create effective health awareness in communities in these ‘pharmerging markets’. If companies consider these markets to be of long term importance, its best to work on the youngest and most impressionable minds there—children. Santa Claus is probably one of the most well recognized characters in this age group and therefore, becomes the ideal choice.
There is documented evidence about how McDonald’s famous character — Ronald McDonald has been used to target their products at children by creating an association between McDonald’s food and happy times. Santa Claus is the only fictional character more recognized than Ronald McDonald. If Ronald McDonald can be so effective at selling burgers to children, we can well expect Santa to be equally effective at selling health awareness. After all, it was Santa’s advertising potential that reincarnated simple Saint Nicholas into the glory of a universally recognized icon.
Pharmaceutical companies can help public health policy makers understand that Santa sells. Being a childhood icon he could be well utilized to “de-market” products such as cigarettes/tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods. Santa, can therefore, have a growing impact on international public health in India as we see increasing celebration ‘western festivals’ such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
But, sometimes Santa sells harmful products and sends harmful messages to impressionable young children. Santa is a late adopter of evidence based behavior change and continues to sport a rotund, sedentary image. And, this is not the only example where Santa’s behavior and public image are at odds with contemporary accepted public health messages.
Promoting Junk Food
Think of all the cookies, chocolates and other goodies that are laid out for Santa Claus’ visit on Christmas Eve. This tells kids that it is perfectly alright to gorge on junk food simply because “Santa eats it!”
Santa promotes a message that obesity is synonymous with cheerfulness and joviality. It is really important that the people who kids look up to as role models are in good shape, eating well and getting exercise. Therefore, Santa should slim down. Santa might be encouraged to adopt a more active method to deliver toys and gifts—swapping his reindeer for a bicycle or simply walking or jogging.
Although Santa is banned from smoking in public, the image of the jolly, pipe smoking, bringer of good tidings remains firmly engrained in many people’s imagination. Furthermore, images of Santa enjoying a cigarette are still available on Christmas cards and drawings. One can only imagine how a 4 year old child upon spotting one such picture can say, “Look, Mom, Santa Claus is smoking.” One can also imagine a 41 year old dad arguing with his wife, “Oh honey, how bad can smoking be? Santa smokes, and he must be at least 99 and hasn’t died of lung cancer yet.”
Pharmaceutical companies can help conduct rigorous research on the effect that Santa has on public health. This targeted research is required to help authorities take action to regulate Santa’s activities that should particularly focus on the ability of Santa to encourage the awareness of healthy behavior and the use of Santa in spreading health related messages to children. Today, Santa has an ability to influence people, especially children, towards unhealthy behavior. The article concludes that given Santa’s universal appeal, and reasoning from a population health perspective, Santa needs to affect health by only 0.1% to damage millions of lives. Pharmaceutical companies can help create a new image for Santa Claus to ensure that his influence on public health is a positive one.