Rudolph the Red-Nosed Viral Marketing Miracle

Long before there was a YouTube, one of the greatest American viral marketing feats was accomplished – and it continues to cause buzz today 72 years later. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer entered American pop culture in 1939 as the brainchild of copywriter Robert L. May.

Chicago-based Montgomery Ward, an American department store, had a tradition of buying and giving to customers a coloring book at Christmas – and they saw an opportunity to save money by creating their own book. May, who was teased as a boy for being small, infused a bit of his own childhood struggles into Rudolph (who was almost named Rollo or Reginald). After the story passed the muster with May’s focus group of one – his daughter – he encountered a roadblock at the corporate level. It seems that the execs were worried Rudy’s red nose would conjure up thoughts of red-nosed drunks. Rather than relinquish on this key creative element, May grabbed a Montgomery Ward art director and took him to Lincoln Park Zoo so that he could sketch some deer with ruddy noses. The images removed the guesswork, and May’s vision was approved. Montgomery Ward gave out 2.4 million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1939 – and a total of 6 million copies over 7 years.

Rudolph was a bona fide hit, and licensing opps for this red-nosed symbol of hope abounded in post-war US. Since May had penned Rudolph as a work for hire – ie, as an assignment for a company – the money-making rights were held by Montgomery Ward. Somehow, the same guy who convinced his higher-ups to keep Rudolph’s red nose as part of the story also convinced the company’s president to give him the copyright in January of 1947. That year, Rudolph was printed commercially and a 9-minute cartoon was shown in movie theaters. And while May took a few years off to manage his Rudolph assets – and he lived comfortably off of his reindeer’s mailbox money for the rest of his life (he passed away in 1976) – he did return to Montgomery Ward and work there through retirement.

But what about the song? And the TV special? May’s brother-in-law wrote the song, but many in the music industry turned down the chance to record it. They finally got Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, on board and released in 1949. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is now a Christmas music staple and continues to be one of the best-selling songs of all time. Despite the advances in animation, the 1964 stop-motion television special narrated by Burl Ives also continues to be must-see TV. Interestingly, the original story has some key differences from the song and show: Rudolph was not one of Santa’s reindeer, he lived in an ordinary village with parents who loved (not mocked) him, and he had a good sense of self-worth. In the story, Santa is having a tough night due to fog and sees the rosy nosey emanation while delivering gifts to Rudolph’s house. After bring Rudolph on board to finish his deliveries, Santa says: “By YOU last night’s journey was actually bossed. Without you, I’m certain we’d all have been lost.”

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer proves what all good marketers should know: you can’t create viral. You can create good content that can go viral. Robert L. May and Montgomery Ward sure did.

~ Denise Blasevick, Rudolph Fan and @AdvertGirl, The S3 Agency

Denise Blasevick
Denise Blasevick

CEO @The S3 Agency

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