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In an earlier edition of TV Urban Legends Revealed, I wrote about how the original airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was a commentary on how Christmas had become too commercialized, had a Coca-Cola ad interwoven into the special. However, even more interestingly, A Charlie Brown Christmas has its roots in commercials, as the first animated appearance by Peanuts characters came in the form of television ads. How Peanuts creator Charles Schulz came to agree to those commercials is an interesting story in its own right, and as it turns out, it likely came down to Schulz’s personal connection to the Ford Motor Company.
Right off the bat, let’s disabuse the notion that Schulz was anti-commercialism; he wasn’t. He might have felt that Christmas had gotten too commercialized, but he was fine with the idea of licensing his characters. In his awesome 1997 interview with Schulz, Gary Groth asked about licensing; here’s what Schulz had to say:
Now the licensing thing has always been around. Percy Crosby [who I featured in a fascinating Comic Book Legends Revealed years ago here] did all sorts of licensing. Buster Brown was licensed like mad, you know. It’s always been just traditional. Lil’ Abner, Al Capp did a lot of licensing. But it comes upon you so slowly, you’re not even realizing that it’s happening. And also you’re young, you have a family to raise, you don’t know how long this is going to last. Larry Rutman was very anxious to try and promote something that would guarantee me some kind of a reasonable income for the rest of my life. The first licensing we did almost came along by accident. I was in New York one day and he said some chocolate company wanted me to draw a special strip with some kids drinking their chocolate. And they didn’t want the Peanuts characters, but just some other little kids. So I did it. And that was our first licensing. And then the Eastman-Kodak company came and they wanted me to do a special little booklet showing the characters using the new Brownie camera. Which I did. Didn’t make a lot of money, and it was hard work, but these just came along little by little by little.
However, these print items were a far cry from the offer Schulz received in 1959. The Ford Motor Company was debuting a new car, the Ford Falcon, and wanted to use the Peanuts characters in a variety of ads, both in print and on television. This would be a huge commitment on Schulz’s part, and many wondered if he would actually go for it. The animator who would be doing the commercials, Bill Melendez, recalled the situation to Michael Mallory a while back:
They said, ‘You have to go meet Schulz because he doesn’t like people from Hollywood.’ When they asked the syndicate about it, they said, ‘Oh, he’ll never do it, he hates commercialism.’ But these guys were insistent and they went to see Schulz, and it turned out that the only car he’d ever driven was a Ford [Schulz’s father also drove a Ford when Schulz was a boy]! He said, ‘Oh, of course I don’t mind saying some nice things about Ford.’ So we met and I told him what I did, and he’d seen some of them on TV. He wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to take away his property and misuse it or change it, but I was not going to be creative with somebody else’s drawing. He finally realized our intentions were good and let us do it.”
The campaign debuted in 1959 with an ad based directly off a then-recent Peanuts comic strip, with Charlie Brown giving out chocolate cigars to his friends to celebrate the birth of his sister Sally.
The characters also served as introductions to the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, sponsored by Ford.
The TV and print ads ran for a number of years and were very popular.
Years later, a producer named Lee Mendelson wanted to make a documentary about Schulz, and the cartoonist agreed. While Mendelson was shopping the documentary, however, Coca-Cola approached him about sponsoring an animated special with Schulz’s characters. Mendelson checked and Schulz agreed, but only if the animation was by Melendez, who Schulz saw as the only person he wanted to animate his characters.
The rest, as they say, is animation history.
Interestingly enough, the Peanuts characters are now most famous for their long-running association with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Schulz also happened to be a MetLife policy holder for decades before they approached him about using his characters. Talk about brand loyalty!
The legend is …
STATUS: Basically True (I suspect that Ford’s offer might have enticed Schulz even if he was not a Ford fan, but I guess we’ll never know for sure)
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!