What, exactly, does a truckload of holiday cheer look like? The UK Coke Truck Tour, that’s what.

The iconic Christmas truck tour — a series of illuminated trucks that travel to small towns throughout the UK and Ireland — was born out of a television commercial that first aired in 1995. The advertisement, which featured a seemingly endless fleet of bedecked 18-wheelers making their way across a snowy landscape, was Coca-Cola’s way of marking the start of the Christmas season. Famed advertising agency W.B. Doner created the ad, hiring the masters of special effects at Hollywood’s Industrial Light and Magic (the team that did special effects for Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) to simulate the fleet of trucks. The images were so compelling and consumer response was so positive that the company broadcast the ad the following year with equal success. In 1998, Coca-Cola created another iteration of the ad, which aired in more than 100 countries. In 1999, a fourth version was made. The concept was a holiday home run, so it’s no wonder that the ad remains one of the most widely used Coke commercials ever produced.

Bringing the Ads to Life

Three years ago, in 2009, Coca-Cola UK decided to bring those made-for-TV trucks to life. Chris Ross, Senior Brand Activation Manager, was charged with the task of assembling a team and creating a blueprint for mobilizing a real caravan of trucks and sending them to small towns throughout the UK and Ireland. Thanks to precise (and early) orchestration, ingenuity and loads of enthusiasm, Ross made it happen. But what was thought to be a onetime event has now turned into an annual occasion. “With every year we get more and more consumers calling our offices, asking when the caravan will start to make its way. The excitement is truly fantastic.” The planning process starts in July, and the real work of plotting the truck’s route and decorating the trucks happens in October, with the month of November set aside for the finishing touches, such as making sure the truck’s exterior artwork (a likeness of a jolly Santa) is perfect and testing each of the thousands of bulbs used to light up the vehicles. The first year the caravan was launched, it was anyone’s guess as to when the trucks would roll into a town, but in subsequent years the company has posted the route online for consumers to plan accordingly. “We want the trucks to act as the unofficial countdown to Christmas,” explains Ross. “Millions of people have seen the advertisement over the years and to be able to actually deliver that unique experience to them is core to our values as a company.”

Spreading Holiday Cheer, One Truck at a Time

This year the trucks will make 64 stops over a 40-day period, handing out more than 300,000 samples of Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and Coke Zero, and snapping more than 50,000 photos of delighted onlookers (everyone who has a photo taken is given a unique code that allows them to download the free photos online). The tour is meant to spread holiday cheer to one and all, says Ross, but he admits the truck’s staff gets to see and feel the spirit of the holidays most of all. “There are so many special moments,” Ross says. “Recently we were parked up near the Angel of the North, around midnight. We were ready to leave the location when a woman asked if we could stay a few more minutes while she fetched her daughter. Naturally we agreed to stay, and the woman dashed off and returned with her young daughter, who had been pulled out of bed and was still wearing her pajamas. Upon seeing the truck, all lit up against the dark sky, the girl literally cried with excitement!” The truck team has seen everything from impromptu caroling to a proposal on bended knee, but all admit it’s the faces of excited children that make it all worthwhile.

Good old Santa Claus may get top billing this season, but these modern-day sleighs, in the form of twinkling Coca-Cola trucks, are certainly delivering their fair share of Christmas cheer.