The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is consistent proof that, even in the age of streaming, people will watch a commercial if it's entertaining enough.
Basically a rolling showcase of brands that stretches from Columbus Circle to Herald Square, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade features enough Broadway musical numbers, nominal pop stars, random celebrities and frostbitten marching bands to make the Today show cast sound more like hosts than pitchmen. Yet at a time when Netflix allows viewers to skip intros, never mind commercials, the audience for this event just keeps growing.
How big is it? Let's put it this way: host network NBC airs this and a prime-time National Football League game on Thanksgiving each year. Last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers' 28-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts (without injured quarterback Andrew Luck) drew 21 million viewers. That was less than the 35.7 million viewers Fox got for a Dallas-D.C. game just before NBC's kickoff. It also trailed the 27.6 million viewers that CBS pulled in for a Detroit-Minnesota matchup earlier in the day. However, NBC's game roughly tripled the viewership of the next most-popular show to air that evening.
Meanwhile, early on Thanksgiving morning, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade drew 25 million viewers and eclipsed the audience of 22.3 million viewers that watched in 2015. Now guess which Thanksgiving event NBC isn't paying the NFL $1.1 billion to air through 2021.
It generally takes a political debate or a major sporting event to produce the kind of audience numbers this parade draws each year. Started in 1924 and first televised in 1948, the parade originally had Goodyear manufacturing its trademark balloons and had Disney's Mickey Mouse as one of its first floating attractions. However, in the mid-1980s, the parade began increasing corporate sponsorship and letting companies including McDonald's, Unilever, Nestle and Sea World owner Anheuser-Busch enter balloons into the parade. In recent years, Today show hosts Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker and Matt Lauer have basically been describing company billboards to viewers between songs and actual commercials. Along the parade route, marketing teams hand out their wares, lest someone not get the message that the balloons, "balloonicles" and floats are sending.
Not only do people watch in droves, but they still tune into the NBC version despite the fact that CBS has been using its position along the parade route to broadcast The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS. If people wanted knockoffs, they'd go down to Canal Street: NBC seems well poised to maintain its monopoly and keep sponsors happy.
Granted, all of those sponsors pay for the bands, entertainers and celebrities you'll watch along the way, but this parade was founded as the kickoff to the holiday shopping season. With huge shopping days on Thanksgiving (which Macy's is open for), Black Friday and Cyber Monday coming up, companies know the opportunity that being presented to them. They aren't schlepping Santa Claus from the Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side all the way down to 34th Street just to give him a workout. The following 20 companies are letting him know it's time to get to work, and that they'll take the reindeer reins if he won't:
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Parade persona: Frozen Fall Fun Float
Consider this your annual reminder from NBC and Discover begging to watch hockey.
Discover (DFS) has a sponsorship agreement with the NHL through 2019. NBC, meanwhile, inked a 10-year, $2 billion television rights deal with the NHL in 2011. NBC once aired a Black Friday doubleheader called the Thanksgiving Showdown, but they're going with just one game -- and afternoon game between the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins -- as the rest of the league goes with a standard schedule.
With a Winter Classic matchup at Citi Field on New Year's Day to promote and a niche audience that may finally expand thanks to the Nashville Predators' run to the Stanley Cup Finals and the Las Vegas Golden Knights' introduction, both NBC and Discover have more reason to be thankful this year than they have in year. However, a bunch of kids skating on a synthetic, rolling ice rink to questionable musical accompaniment has always been a tough sell.
21st Century Fox's 20th Century Fox Animation
Parade persona: Scrat and Acorn Ice Age balloon
How is this balloon not extinct yet?
Fifteen years into the 21st Century Fox (FOXA) Ice Age series's run, the franchise is losing steam. Last year's installment, Ice Age: Collision Course, made just $64 million in North America. That's little more than a third of what Ice Age: Continental Drift made back in 2012 (or what the first film made roughly a decade earlier) and a shadow of what this franchise was during its late-2000s peak. Kids who grew up with the original films are either in college or at their first jobs, Ray Romano is likely better known as a mammoth to those kids than as a sitcom actor or comedian and the youngest generation has moved onto other franchises. Though a sixth installment is rumored to be in the works (the last film still quadrupled its budget worldwide), the connection to audiences is breaking.
Parade persona: Charlie Brown balloon and Snoopy's Doghouse float
You wonder how many more adventures Charlie Brown and the gang have left in them.
Peanuts creator Charles Schultz has been gone 17 years. The last Peanuts movie, a sweet love letter to Schultz and his characters, has been out of theaters for two years. Charlie, Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang were dropped as mascots by MetLife last year. Earlier this year, a majority stake of their holding company -- Peanuts Worldwide -- was sold to Canadian firm DHX Media (DHXM) . NBC doesn't even air Peanuts holiday specials anymore (ABC has the rights), so we aren't really sure where the Peanuts gang goes from here. Considering the Peanuts gang dates back to 1950, retirement may be slightly overdue.
Parade persona: Dino balloon
With the Hess corporation selling its gas stations to Marathon Oil and the holiday Hess trucks now existing solely online, Macy's had to round up another petroleum-based sponsor fast.
Never mind that Sinclair has all of one location in New York, four in New Jersey and none in Connecticut or Pennsylvania. The Dino made its debut at the 1963 World's Fair in Queens as part of the Dinoland attraction. Beyond that, Dino's made appearances in 13 other parades and is just about the only other gas station chain with strong ties to the parade other than Hess. We know Dino was born here, but he's a long way from his flyover home.
Parade persona: Olaf balloon
Oh, Frozen wasn't just the 2013 film that took in $1.2 billion globally. No, it's a giant franchise of soundtracks, merchandise, Disney On Ice shows, Disney park attractions and short films -- the most recent of which, Olaf's Frozen Adventure, will run before showings of Disney (DIS) and Pixar's Thanksgiving release Coco. The Joshua Gad-voiced Olaf represents all of the above, but he's more likely a reminder to both parents and kids to secure tickets to the Frozen Broadway musical that opens at the St. James Theatre in March.
Parade persona: SpongeBob balloon, Chase balloon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles float
Just about anyone who's parented a child within the last four years knows what Paw Patrol is and who German Shepherd spy dog Chase is. Those same parents have also learned to stifle their searing hatred of this Canadian CGI hero team and just accept that their own parents likely loathed the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or Transformers with similar passion.
SpongeBob, meanwhile, has made Viacom's (VIAB) Nickelodeon more than $12 billion just from merchandising alone since his debut in 1999. With his 11th season just underway and two films under his belt, SpongeBob and his friends in Bikini Bottom have fought of claims of declining quality to continue sending a tide of money Viacom's way. Yet another movie is on its way in 2019.
As for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, their latest animated run is still yielding fruit -- with Season 5s wrapping up in November and merchandising dollars still flowing in. However, the latest film -- last year's Out of the Shadows -- sliced its take from the 2014 original in half and made it clear that Paramount had no interest in a third installment. It's been a franchise in various forms for more than 30 years, but there comes a point in every generation when "cowabunga" just doesn't cut it anymore.
Homewood Suites by Hilton
Parade persona: On The Roll Again float
Your friends and relatives are easier to deal with and tougher to resent when they aren't living under your roof.
According to travel site Hotwire, Nov. 29 is the best date to book a hotel room for the holiday season. The average room costs $81 and cities including San Jose, Dallas, D.C. and New York City see a 51% to 63% decrease in prices on that date. This float is just a reminder from Hilton (HLT) that they want you to consider them a holiday option. Even if you think you have inexhaustible patience with their loved ones, the holidays often prove patience is finite and personal time and space is necessary if you're going to make it through multiple days of family time in one piece. Hilton's just reminding you that their suites are larger and have more updated amenities that grandma's guest room, and that you won't be able to hear your aunt talk politics or your uncle discuss his latest bout of gout if you stay at their facilities for breakfast.
Parade persona: Winter Wonderland float
That big gap between Thanksgiving and the winter holidays is exactly what Delta's (DAL) aiming for with this float.
Travel site FareCompare's chief executive Rick Seaney calls those blank periods "dead zones" and notes that Delta and other airlines really want you to think about flying during those times. Ordinarily, the first two weeks in December and the last three weeks in January (and into February) are near-vacant portions of the travel calendar. People planning to fly for Christmas or New Year's want no part of them and folks who blew all their cash on holiday gifts can't afford them. Everybody else gets a great deal and some elbow room. If Delta can use this float to fill those seats -- and remind people that it didn't bloody one of its passengers and drag him off a plane this year -- all the better.
Parade persona: Trolls balloon
Can a Justin Timberlake song alone get people out to a film? The nearly $345 million this film made at the box office last year says yes.
This was strictly a reason to get Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake together in a film that's just DreamWorks Animation's way of licking its finger and putting it on the more than 50-year-old intellectual property of Thomas Dam's troll dolls. Throw in some Zooey Deschanel and Gwen Stefani, put Ariana Grande in the soundtrack, sprinkle in Russell Brand, James Corden, John Cleese and Icona Pop for the international audience and just watch the money roll in, right? With a $125 million budget, this film wasn't exactly an underdog. But that big performance pretty much ensured a sequel in 2020.
General Mills and J.M. Smucker
Parade persona: Pillsbury Dough Boy balloon
The General Mills (GIS) Pillsbury ads that run during the parade serve one purpose: To get last-minute shoppers out the door to pick up their forgotten biscuits and dinner rolls.
We're surprised it took until 2009 to get the Dough Boy into the parade lineup. Pillsbury's has tubes of various varieties of cinnamon rolls for Thanksgiving morning parade-watching, biscuits for dinner and crescent rolls for various baked treats throughout the day are ubiquitous around Thanksgiving.
Besides, what are you going to do: Make them from scratch? You're already cooking a sizable dinner and working a full-time job that likely didn't give you Wednesday off and likely wants you in on Friday as well. If you're looking to cut corners, this is by far the easiest one to cut.
The Hallmark Channel
Parade persona: The Heartwarming Holiday Countdown float
How do you fight a giant global entertainment corporation during the holidays when they have all of the beloved classics of holiday pop culture and you have, well, the also-ran stars of the '80s and '90s? Start the holidays early and play your second-tier movies often.
The Hallmark Channel may have thought it was getting a break when ABC Family changed to Millennial-branded Freeform last year. However, Freeform held on to ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas for dear life and gifted viewers Elf, Shrek, The Polar Express, The Santa Clause, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Scrooged, Christmas Vacation and a lot more Disney fare than the Disney-owned station typically dabbles in. That means Willy Wonka, all the Toy Story films, Happy Feet and Frozen.
However, it also means fewer Rankin-Bass stop-motion animation offerings from the '60s and fewer straight-to-cable, B-movie Christmas filler films. That's where the Hallmark Channel comes in. Since October 28, the Hallmark Channel has ditched Golden Girls and Frasier reruns to bring you a slate of made-for-TV holiday classics featuring all the biggest stars of yesteryear. Kristin Davis, Lacey Chabert, Kathy Najimy, Danica McKellar, Lori Loughlin, Eric McCormack and many other faces who'll make you say, "Oh yeah, him/her," are all padding the network's schedule and helping viewers remember why most networks don't do "TV movies" anymore. This is the 25 Days of Christmas for contrarians, and this Hallmark Channel float is a reminder that it's only halfway finished.
Parade persona: Discover Adventure! float
Yes, you can build a publicly traded company around custom teddy bears.
This is perhaps the company's best shot at marketing its ware to its target audience. When else are they supposed to make that big ad splurge? With a nearly $5 million, 30-second ad during the Super Bowl just before Valentine's Day? No, any toymaker knows that your whole year is made or broken in the middle of the holiday season. Without running weeks of costly ads or determining which media people are still paying attention to, Build-A-Bear (BBW) can get both a huge audience and its key demographic with one float. It's a smart move, but this company has made its reputation by building something out of seemingly nothing.
Parade persona: Grinch balloon and Tom Turkey float
There's some synergy for you. NBC parent company Comcast (CMCSA) also just happens to own Universal, which is releasing yet another animated version of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas in November 2018. If you'll recall, the original 1966 animated "film" ran all of 26 minutes with Boris Karloff narrating and the Grinch speaking zero words of dialogue. In 2000, Ron Howard and Jim Carrey stretched the story to an hour and 45 minutes with middling results. Now, we get Benedict Cumberbatch voicing a character who never had one in a film that will, once again, be far too long for Dr. Seuss' narrative. We'll likely see the results next year, when Comcast trots out this balloon again a few weeks after the film's release.
Meanwhile, what kind of sadists at NBC Universal thought it was a great idea to have Bravo's Top Chef sponsor the Tom Turkey float this year? That float's been around since 1971, but you get the feeling that it's going to meet a hamfisted, overly dramatized, ridiculously plated end.
Parade persona: Ronald McDonald balloon and shoe car
Back in 1986, when the chain was on its first of four balloons, kids were eating its Happy Meals without care and skating Ronald commercials were holiday staples. Thirty years later, Ronald McDonald's (MCD) fast-food chain has transformed into an array of all-day breakfast, premium burgers and 2 for $5 meal deals aimed squarely at the adults those Happy Meal kids became.
The Today show's Willard Scott - who originated the Ronald McDonald character and played him throughout the 1960s and early '70s - helped introduce the balloon during its first parade year. Since then, Ronald has become a symbol of child obesity, questionable fast-food marketing, product placement and corporatized U.S. dining practices. Every infected burrito and late-night "munchies" menu traces back to Ronald in some way. Your inner child remembers the choco-vanilla shakes, the scent and flavor of oversalted fries and the image of primary-yellow cheese product melting over grey shin beef. To adults on Thanksgiving morning, he's a reminder of why they tried Crossfit within the last year.
Parade persona: Kentucky Fried Chicken's "The Colonel's Road Trip To NYC" float
Colonel Harland Sanders probably wouldn't be all that jovial about being made into a caricature by Saturday Night Live alums Norm McDonald and Darrell Hammond, Daily Show alum Rob Riggle, comedian Jim Gaffigan or film star George Hamilton. In fact, if he somehow managed to live to the ripe old age of 125, there's a strong chance he'd be beating down doors and dressing down Yum Brands (YUM) execs as we speak.
Col. Sanders has been dead for nearly 35 years after living to the age of 90. He sold Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1964, but that didn't stop him from spending some of his final years scolding KFC parent company Heulein and its franchisees. He sued Heulein over the use of his image, they sued him for calling their gravy a mix of "wallpaper paste" and "sludge." Oh, and he would just pop in on franchises and throw their food to the ground if it didn't meet his standards.
Yum Brands has no reason to care what its departed mascot thinks. It inherited a KFC that was using cartoon breakdancing Colonels to sell chicken and losing ground to competitors. Today, it's watching KFC sales in the U.S. grow 2% year-to-date while global sales jump 7%, including a 25% jump in Russia alone.
Parade persona: Pokemon's Pikachu balloon
Well, at least Pokemon Go has died down to the point that people are now only collecting their pocket monsters in designated spaces. However, the Pokemon franchise marches on with Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon releasing for the Nintendo 3DS earlier this month. A Pokemon game for the new Nintendo Switch is also forthcoming. It's great to see Pokemon celebrating its 21st year, but it's even better when that celebration doesn't involve a bunch of people on your law staring into smartphones.
Parade persona: Cranberry Cooperative float
We warned you earlier that there's a portion of this parade designed specifically to remind viewer of items they forgot to pick up for their Thanksgiving dinner. The Pillsbury dough boy represents the biscuit portion (though Kings Hawaiian makes a play for its rolls with its own float), the Tom Turkey float has the bird covered and this float -- a turkey and a goose wading through a bog of cranberries -- represents the cranberry sauce. It's a key component to any great leftover turkey sandwich, it's a splash of color on an otherwise muted holiday table and, for cranberry growers, it's the one time of year where you're going to actually eat cranberries in any meaningful amount rather than drink them or use them as a cocktail mixer.
American Sugar Refining
Parade persona: Stirrin' Up Sweet Sensations float
The Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg hasn't produced sugar since 2004 and is now mostly demolished, with its remnants becoming apartments and its last neon sign adorning the building. This company still uses the Domino brand, which it bought in 2001, but also sells sugar under the California and Hawaiian (C&H), Redpath and Tate & Lyle brands. It is, without question, Big Sugar... and it wants to remind you that none of your baked goods are going to taste right if you use anything else. Sweet'n Low? Straight chemicals? Equal? What is this, 1987? Stevia? OK, Dr. Frankenstein. No, you're going to use sugar by the 10-pound bag, it's going to be in all of your cakes, cookies and pies and you're going to love it. Remember, Big Sugar, er, Domino just wants your holiday meal to taste its best. If that means refining sugar in six different countries on three different continents, so be it.
Parade persona: Krazy Glue Fun House
This is just a reminder that kids are going to break about half of their toys immediately after Christmas. It's also a reminder that beloved brands of yesteryear often get lost in toy boxes of their own. Introduced in 1970, Krazy Glue was first produced by Borden under its Elmer's glue products brand. Elmer's was spun off in 1999, but wound up in the hands of an investment firm by 2003. Two years ago, it was purchased for $600 million by what was then known as Newell Rubbermaid. Today, Hoboken, N.J.-based Newell Brands (NWL) now owns more than a few brands you may have heard of: Rubbermaid storage, Coleman outdoor products, Diamond matches, Sharpie, Expo Markers, PaperMate, Xacto, Bicycle and Bee Playing Cards, Graco children's products, First Alert alarm systems; Calphalon, Sunbeam, Rival, Crock-Pot, Holmes, Oster, Mr. Coffee and Yankee Candle. Krazy Glue is just another name in that portfolio
Parade persona: Angry Birds Red balloon
No, guy who checked out in 2010, Angry Birds isn't dead yet. In fact, the 15th and 16th games in the series-- Angry Birds Evolution and Angry Birds Match -- were just released this year. The Angry Birds Movie released last year made $350 million worldwide on a $79 million budget (sequel coming in 2019) and Angry Birds have crept their way into merchandise, theme park attractions, books and television series. They Pets.com sock puppet "falloon" and the Jeeves balloon (remember Ask Jeeves?) wish they had this long of a run.