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How “A Charlie Brown Christmas” reveals the true meaning of viral content

4 min read

Brands & Campaigns

If you work in online marketing, you’re no stranger to the pressure to create a piece of content that will take on a life of its own. But anyone who has ever tried to create a piece of “viral” content knows that it’s a very tall order.

When you look at the kinds of content that have gained popularity in the past year, it’s easy to come to some mistaken conclusions about what makes content spread. You might think it has to be funny. Or that it should be ironic or post modern.

And, of course, viral content can include those elements. But they’re not requirements. No, I think if you really want to understand why some content goes viral, it helps to look a certain holiday classic:


This clip from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted in 1965. It’s been a holiday tradition ever since. Clips of that speech have been floating around online for years — I first watched it on a computer in 2001 — and despite its age, it still draws a crowd each Christmas.

But I’m not pointing it out because of its own popularity. I mention it because it perfectly embodies principles that can be used to explain the success of a majority of viral videos, even though it’s 46 years old and there’s nothing funny or ironic about it.

So why is this clip so important after so many years? Let’s take a look:

It has an amateur vibe.
The actors in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” are all children. They speak in a halting cadence. The artwork has a loose, almost unprofessional vibe. The special doesn’t have any fancy visual effects or even a laugh track, even though it was produced for network television. In other words, it feels real. We respond to home videos of children and animals not because they’re cute, but because those videos have a straightforward, amateur quality that is disarming.

It has a strong point of view.
Linus doesn’t equivocate. He doesn’t say, “This is what Christmas means to me.” He goes all in. Say what you’ve got to say and don’t apologize for it. Fortune favors the bold.

It tackles a persistent problem.
It’s not hard to find a pundit complaining about the dilution of the Christmas message on cable news today. But fighting over the true meaning of Christmas is a much older argument. And the staying power of that argument has helped sustain the popularity and resonance of the above Peanuts clip over the years. You don’t have to aim for anything as grand as religion versus commerce in your content. But consider that a lot of viral content taps into something deeper than “hey, watch our new product demo.” For all its goofiness, the Old Spice Guy campaign is successful not just because it’s funny or visually inventive, but because men wanting to be more “manly” is a worry as old as mankind. The Old Spice Guy pokes fun at that worry, but it also suggests that a certain scented bodywash brand might be the answer. Are there ways you could tackle a bigger issue in your content?

It builds on existing work.

Many pieces of viral content build on existing properties — whether we’re talking about the image macros from vintage Spiderman cartoons or unexpected covers of popular songs. We call these extended riffs, “mashups” now, but they’ve gone by other names in the past — it’s an idea as old as storytelling itself. “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” uses a reading from the Gospel of St. Luke as a touchstone. Linus could have summarized the reading or told Charlie Brown that Christmas is a religious holiday without mentioning scripture at all. But instead the special reaches back for something older and more powerful — and it’s that tie that so many people find memorable. The reading doesn’t just give the special its essential message, it gives it a flavor and gravity that the Peanuts gang doesn’t have on it’s own.

It makes its point quickly.

The clip is less than two minutes long, culled from a program made to air in a 30-minute time slot. Linus says he’ll explain Christmas, gives his reading and then says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” and walks away. Knowing when you’ve made your point is essential.

How are you incorporating these attributes into your content?

P.S.: I said the Charlie Brown clip explains most viral content. But there’s one category it can’t account for: clips like Rebecca’s Black “Friday.” Those videos derive their popularity from people’s love of laughing at failure. I can’t say I’d recommend trying to imitate that, but if you want to try, be my guest.