Eagles fans booed Santa decades ago. Why won’t that story go away?
Eagles fans booed Santa decades ago. Why won’t that story go away?
The real Santa Claus lived in Atlantic City.
Ten days before Christmas, he was scheduled to work. He was supposed to appear during halftime at the last Philadelphia Eagles game of the season.
It was Dec. 15, 1968. As fate would have it, the region received 5.3 inches of snow that Sunday morning, preventing Santa from making the trek to Franklin Field.
Of course. Could that Eagles season get any worse? The team not only lost 11 straight to start, but then won two in a row, effectively taking them out of the running to draft future Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson.
As a result, fans loathed coach Joe Kuharich. Someone even paid to have a banner plane fly over the field later that day pulling a sign that read, “Joe Must Go.”
The weather just added injuries to these insults. On top of the snow, it was 28 degrees, but with the 20 mph winds, it felt like 15.
In this environment, Eagles representatives approached a 19-year-old named Frank Olivo. They spotted him in the stands wearing a Santa suit, and asked if he could do them a favor: march from one end of the stadium to the other, waving to the crowd.
Olivo said yes. He hoped he would maybe get a football out of it.
As soon as Olivo emerged, the boos began. When he got close enough to the stands, the snowballs started raining down. Fans were in no mood to be cheered up, and Olivo became a target for them to project their frustration upon.
What’s received comparatively little analysis is why this story has so much staying power.
Every fanbase has some embarrassing incidents in their past – dumb things happen when you put tens of thousands of drunk people in one place – but for some reason few have risen to the same mythical status as “Philadelphia fans once booed Santa.”
How did the story of booing Santa spread? And what makes it so memorable and repeatable?
How the snow started to stick
The fact that anyone heard about this story in the first place can be attributed to a heavy dose of media coverage. Both newspapers and national TV mentioned it, including Howard Cosell, one of the most famous sports broadcasters of the time.
This was all in an era when media was far less fragmented than it is today. TV ratings and newspaper readership were much higher than they are today, so a few mass media mentions alone would’ve made it a popular topic of conversation.
However, of every detail that broke through, what got forgotten from those original reports is that fans were throwing snowballs at everybody.
A few years ago, Billy Penn reporter Mark Dent went back in the old newspaper clips from the day after the game. He found that pretty much everyone on the field was a target, including the Vikings’ players and the Eagles’ own coach.
“I don’t know what you call the fans here,” Eagles defensive back Alvin Haymond told the Evening Bulletin after the game. “Animals, I guess.”
But throwing snowballs at athletes isn’t uncommon enough to be memorable and repeatable. It happens all the time.
Throwing snowballs at Santa Claus, a legendarily beloved symbol, however, is surprising. It’s too good a detail for a reporter to ignore, because he or she knows it will get repeated.
In fact, that’s just one of many features of this story that marketing experts have noted are common elements of stories that go viral and remain memorable.
“Naturally sticky ideas are frequently unexpected,” wrote Chip and Dan Heath in the marketing classic “Made To Stick.” “If we can make our ideas more unexpected, they will be stickier.”
They further break down unexpectedness into two emotions: surprise and interest.
Surprise gets attention, which is why reporters would have included that detail. Interest keeps attention, which is why that’s the detail people remember decades later.
“To me, it’s the unexpectedness that fuels the story,” Dan Heath told us. “What kind of angry mob would throw snowballs at Santa Claus? What’s next, spitting on Tinkerbell or egging the Disney castle?”
The Heaths also noted in their book that simple ideas are more likely to be sticky. In this case, “they threw snowballs at Santa Claus” is pithy and easy to repeat. Commentators practically can’t avoid using it. In fact, in 2013, Salon writer EJ Dickson counted 16 times The New York Times had repeated the phrase in the preceding 15 years.
“Occasionally, the reference will come up completely out of context, even when the Times isn’t writing about Philadelphia at all,” Dickson wrote. “And sometimes, the writer even admits being unable to resist the cliche.”
Another thing that makes the story so irresistible? It’s funny.
Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger has found that not all emotional news gets shared equally. In his own bestseller “Contagious,” he notes that funny articles tend to get shared more often than depressing articles, and what all viral articles have in common is they inspire awe in some way.
“People love surprising, stereotypical stories,” Berger told us recently. “Those that take something to the extreme show how true it is. Throwing snowballs at one of the nicest people ever, Santa, does exactly that. You wouldn’t have imagined it would happen, and only fans who were really salty would do something like that.”
Reversing the Santa curse
This last insight from Berger’s research may be the most enlightening for Philadelphia fans wondering why they’re constantly maligned for what seems like such a silly incident so long ago. Why are Philadelphians tarred and feathered for this one particular event, when fanbases of all sports in all cities routinely commit genuinely violent crimes?
The answer may be the fact that it isn’t actually serious at all. Not only was Frank Olivo uninjured, but he also became semi-famous.
“My 15 minutes of fame lasted 43 years, ya know?” Olivo said in 2011, before he passed away in 2015.
“He reveled in all the notoriety,” said John Braithwaite, a friend of Olivo’s (and brother of our founder, Hugh). “He got a ton of recognition.”
Meanwhile, people are far less willing to discuss darker spectator incidents that bring up genuine issues of anger and hate.
“The Santa story is more benign,” Berger said. “Yes, they threw snowballs at Santa, but in the end it just shows how crazy the fans are, and no one was damaged.”
That said, it isn’t harmless for many of today’s Philly fans. Many view the phrase as simply a euphemism for calling Philadelphians assholes.
“If Santa himself wasn’t outraged by the fans’ attack, maybe it’s time to stop using it as proof of just how anti-social Philly fans are?” asked Larry Platt in The Philadelphia Citizen.
Even Olivo got sick of it eventually.
“It went away for a while, but every now and then you hear some guy on TV who only knows Philly for the cheesesteaks and the Liberty Bell talk about the time fans threw snowballs at Santa,” Olivo told the Daily News in 2009. “It was cool to hear it back then when it went national and Howard Cosell is saying your name on TV, but today when you hear it, it’s like, ‘Shut up already.'”
If fans here truly want to rid their city of this story, however, they can’t just proclaim how much they love Santa, or explain the facts of the situation. People gravitate toward stories that reinforce existing beliefs.
The key instead is providing a counter narrative, what Berger calls a “poison parasite.” There needs to be an alternate story that is equally sticky, but makes an opposite point.
“So every time you hear the original rumor, you think of the combatting idea and it undermines the original,” Berger said. “Same with the Santa story. There needs to be a related idea it triggers that undermines its truth.”
Can Eagles fans be convinced to throw flowers on the field this season? Cheer on their opponents? Welcome opposing fans with open arms?
Those would certainly be unexpected. But that’s exactly what the city needs.
This article is part of our Inside Story series, an occasional, in-depth look at the hidden marketing insights behind historical and current events. It was written by Lee Procida, our Lead Content Strategist.