Its_mine_01 Well, my Patriots didn't do so well last evening, but that lovable loser Charlie Brown scored big. Our ad called "It's Mine" showed character balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade pursuing a Coke bottle balloon. In the end, a Charlie Brown balloon ends up with the Coke. The USA Today AD Meter rated that spot the top soft drink commercial shown during the Big Game and #7 overall. The ad also drew critical acclaim from advertising experts, many of who rated it in the top 10. (See the ad.)

This isn't the first time that Coca-Cola and Charlie Brown have teamed up. Our history goes back to the 1960s.

In fact, the original 1965 "A Charlie Brown Christmas" would not have aired without support from Coca-Cola. Everyone I tell this story to loves it, and I hope you do too. It’s a bit long, though, so I’m breaking it up and posting it in a few parts.

In 1965, the “Peanuts” characters were widely known – and loved --through the famous comic strip, but Charles Schulz’s creations had not yet been seen on television. Putting the Peanuts on TV was a big gamble. No one knew whether the public would accept an animated version of the strip. The idea of a “Peanuts” TV show had already been rejected by the major networks, and some fans worried that TV would ruin the characters.

If you haven’t seen it (and I can’t imagine who hasn’t!), “A Charlie Brown Christmas” shows Charlie Brown struggling to find the real meaning of Christmas. In his book Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz, Lee Mendelson, producer of the special, tells the story of how Coca-Cola became the original sponsor of the special.

Mendelson said that after making a successful TV documentary about Willie Mays, one of the world’s greatest baseball players, he had an idea to do a documentary about the world’s worst baseball player, Charlie Brown, and his creator. He phoned Charles Schulz, and the cartoonist agreed to cooperate.

“So for the next five months, we filmed every aspect of the world of Charlie Brown and Charlie Schulz,” Mendelson wrote. “The animated sequences were created by an old friend of Sparky’s [Schulz’s nickname] named Bill Melendez. … The whole production was done on speculation as no network or agency would finance it. We figured, however, that this would be the easiest thing in the world to sell, and we borrowed heavily to complete it.”

Mendelson took the completed one-hour special to the three top TV networks and to 20 top advertising agencies. All of them had the same answer – no.

“Those who actually saw it, liked it,” he reported, “but no one would buy it. Some said we couldn’t translate the success of the strip to television; others thought it was too innocent and slow-moving for the television audiences.

“A whole year passed, and no one was interested. As our loan at the bank came due, and as the whole project appeared to be headed for a typical Charlie Brown disaster, the Great Pumpkin – or Somebody – stepped in. In May of 1965 we received a call from John Allen of the McCann-Erickson [advertising] agency.”

Allen had seen the documentary nine months before. He said McCann’s client, The Coca-Cola Company, was looking for a special. “By any chance, do you have a format for an animated ‘Peanuts’ show that could be connected with Christmas?”

Mendelson said yes, even though he didn’t have such a program. He figured he could put one together in a month or so. But Allen asked for an outline by Monday, and it was Friday – and those were the days before email or overnight shipping!

Mendelson told Allen it would be there, and quickly phoned Schulz and explained they needed a Christmas idea in about 30 minutes.

“In his calm, confident way he [Schulz] said that Christmas had always been one of his favorite themes and that he believed that we could do a meaningful Christmas special,” Mendelson wrote. “So the next day we worked out a rough format over the phone. It would have to be called extremely rough, for it barely made up one typewritten page, triple spaced.”

Although Allen was surprised by the brevity of the outline, he presented it to Coca-Cola management. The next morning, Mendelson received this telegram from Allen:

“CONFIRM SALE OF CHARLIE BROWN FOR CHRISTMAS TO COCA-COLA FOR DECEMBER BROADCAST AT YOUR TERMS WITH OPTION ON SECOND SHOW FOR NEXT SPRING. GOOD GRIEF!”

This was a thrilling moment because, as Mendelson said, a sponsor “had finally agreed to gamble on the world’s greatest loser, Charlie Brown.”

What were the challenges of this TV special? What was the public’s reaction? What happened next? Watch my blog for the rest of the story – Part 2 is coming soon!