To promote its Black Friday event a few weeks ago, Italy’s largest automaker began airing commercials that cast Santa Claus as “a playa.” The ads feature a slimmed-down, suave-looking Santa, sporting a chic haircut and a manicured beard. The forty-something Santa is decked out in a red blazer with pocket kerchief, white shirt, and black slacks. A red-checked scarf flows from his shoulders.
“So, they’ve updated Santa’s image,” some may be thinking. “It’s about time Kris Kringle got a makeover.” There’s much more to the ads, however, than just Santa’s new look. Accompanying Santa are two attractive, twenty-something female elves. The tall and shapely sidekicks wear matching, form-fitting red dresses with scoop necks. Black stilettos and an amble layer of red lipstick accessorize their outfits.
The lady elves don’t speak. Rather, they simply saunter around the showroom, sensually stroking vehicles they pass. At the end of one of the ads, with no apparent concern for Mrs. Clause, the women lock elbows with their boss, solidifying the arm-candy stereotype and making one wonder in exactly what sense they are Santa’s little helpers.
Yes, the ad looks very alluring, but that’s not all. In an uncharacteristically deep and raspy voice, Santa delivers several sultry and suggestive one-liners:
“That’s too hot for the North Pizzle.”
“That’s naughty and nice.”
“You better not be jingling my bells.”
This isn’t the first time Fiat has used sex to sell cars. You might remember the firm’s ‘little blue pill’ ad that aired during the Super Bowl a couple of years ago. Although, if you’re like many others, you may have thought it was an ad for Viagra.
In any case, what’s the big deal? So what if a car company offers a more adult-friendly Santa? It’s all in good fun, and, by the way, **SPOILER ALERT** Santa isn’t real. Yes, there was once an actual Saint Nicholas, a venerable man, but the modern-day Santa is a fanciful holiday add-on who has no historic connection to the events of the first Christmas.
These points have merit, but there’s still the fact that Fiat has sexualized Santa! Even though he doesn’t actually exist, many still respect the kind-hearted altruism Santa symbolizes and appreciate his promotion of that same holiday spirit. Kids, of course, are the ones who love Santa most, which is understandable given that the legend is specially intended for children. That’s why kids look forward to sitting on his lap at the mall and leaving milk and cookies for him Christmas Eve. That’s also why Fiat’s sexualized Santa is so misguided.
If you haven’t noticed, for many years there’s been a trend toward sexualizing asexual things: everything from food to fitness have been made in some way to be sexual stimulating. It’s bad enough to feed this frenzy; what’s even worse is to sexualize things intended for children, like Santa.
It’s true that humans are sexual beings and children at some point need to understand that facet of life, but it can prove costly to prematurely end their innocence, especially when leading kids to believe that their sexual identity is their entire identity. In the current cultural context, young girls are particularly at risk with such mistaken messages about sex and are likely to live with the consequences for years to come.
“But wait,” you may be thinking, “elementary schoolers don’t drive cars, adults do, so Fiat can’t be targeting kids with its ads.” That’s probably true, but television commercials are often susceptible to spillover such that individuals outside the target market see the ads: think of Sunday afternoon football games, beer commercials, and all the families seeing both. For that reason, it’s especially perilous to market an adult product using a character that captivates children. R.J. Reynold’s Joe Camel did so until the company bowed to public pressure in 1997 and settled a lawsuit that alleged that use of the character was turning kids onto cigarettes.
Granted, these two examples aren’t exactly alike. There’s nothing inherently wrong with cars, but there’s much to dread about cigarettes. On the other hand, a cartoon camel isn’t intrinsically bad, but an oversexualized Santa is, for the reasons mentioned above.
Despite its prior use of sex in ads, Fiat probably isn’t trying to push a sexual agenda. Chances are it just wants to sell cars and believes that it can use sex as a means to that end. The sex appeal probably does work to a certain extent: It grabs people’s attention and keeps their interest—the first two steps in AIDA. Unfortunately for Fiat, however, such a gratuitous use of sex is unlikely to spur desire for cars or to stimulate action, i.e., purchases. The fact that many Super Bowl viewers forgot that the “little blue pill” ad was for a car, let along for Fiat, is a classic case in point.
So, Fiat’s use of a sexy Santa and two enticing elves is unlikely to better its bottom-line. Instead of creating a desire for its cars, the company is more likely stimulating unhealthy views of sex that potentially harm children and definitely objectify women. For these reasons Fiat’s campaign ends up on the “naughty list” with other examples of “Mindless Marketing.”