Editors' pick: Originally published Nov. 17.
NBC's telecast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is a rolling commercial hosted by the Today show crew... and sponsors know it.
There is no other non-sports show on television that's able to draw the audience that this parade provides, and it's basically a pep rally for Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping. Before it was cool for stores to open their doors and host "Black Friday" sales on Thanksgiving itself, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade spent the better part of the last century using Thanksgiving to get Americans all riled up Christmas shopping. Of the 30 most-watched television broadcasts of fall 2015, only two of them didn't involve a National Football League game: the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and its 22.3 million viewers and a Republican presidential debate. In fact, the parade drew a larger audience than 35% of NFL games aired last season.
With NFL ratings slumping of late, the parade is one of the few times advertisers are guaranteed an viewing audience of this size.
Though the the Detroit and Philadelphia Thanksgiving parades are far older, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is the breadwinner. The dulcet tones of Today show hosts Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker and Matt Lauer whisper ad copy into your living room as each floating billboard passes, while the actual commercial breaks fills the air with promises of crescent rolls and the touch, the feel of cotton. If you're lucky enough to be there in person, hordes of marketing interns will be on hand to fill your frostbitten hands with swag.
There are other, less outwardly commercial viewing options available, but they just seem a bit hollow. Though NBC partners with Macy's and has official broadcast rights, CBS takes advantage of the public venue (and its studio near Times Square) to broadcast The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS seemingly as punishment for employees who'd rather have the day off.
Granted, it's those sponsors that bring you performances by The Muppets, Aloe Blacc, Regina Spektor, De La Soul, Fitz and The Tantrums and Sarah McLachlan, but they do so on floats dedicated to their products and beneath balloons shapes like their mascots and other intellectual property. It's the companies' street party, and you're just invited to watch. While it goes without saying that Macy's will be on hand for the festivities, here are 20 companies dragging Santa Claus down from his cozy Upper West Side digs near the Museum of Natural History to Herald Square:
Parade persona: Frozen Fall Fun Float
This is NBC and Discover begging you to please watch hockey.
Discover has a sponsorship agreement with the NHL through 2019. NBC, meanwhile, inked a ten-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 New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers -- as the rest of the league goes with a standard schedule.
A bunch of kids skating on a synthetic, rolling ice rink, an always questionable music pairing: this float's been a tough sell for a long time.
Parade persona: Discover Adventure! float
We're still amazed that this is a publicly traded company, but we're nonetheless impressed by its presence at this parade.
This company's entire business model consists of letting people customize their own teddy bears. 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, you get just one shot at the big buildable-bear bucks, and that's smack in the middle of the holiday season. This chain's entire fiscal year all builds up to this: You may as well go as big as you can.
Parade persona: Trolls balloon
It isn't Laika and Focus Features's 2014 film The Boxtrolls. Nor is it the 2010 Norwegian horror cult classic Trollhunter. It isn't even the 1986 film Troll that looks like a crude '80s version of a Harry Potter film.
Nope, this was strictly a reason to get Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake (pictured above) together in a film that's just DreamWorks'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? Hey if it worked for The Smurfs (who are oddly absent from this year's parade), there's no reason this formula and its undersized star can't turn a profit on the film's similarly undersized $125 million budget.
Parade persona: Scrat and Acorn Ice Age balloon
Somebody throw this franchise back into cold storage.
Fourteen years into the Ice Age series's run, we're starting to see some diminishing returns stateside. This 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: Universal Orlando Resort Nutcracker and Mouse King "balloonicles"
Even more synergy! NBC parent company Comcast also just happens to own the Universal resorts, and a blast of cold weather has them thinking of shuffling Northeast and Midwest viewers south for a little holiday vacation. Royal Caribbean cruise lines built its own float to this end, SeaWorld did the same and there's a reason you don't see Disney, Marvel or Star-Wars characters along this parade route.
Parade persona: Planters Nutmobile
Mr. Peanut is just another sheet in a huge corporate portfolio.
When Heinz merged with Kraft, which already split from Mondelez, last year, it put Planters into the mix with Kool-Aid, Oscar Meyer, OreIda, Velveeta, Shake N Bake, Jell-O, Capri Sun, Philadelphia, Lunchables, Planters, Maxwell House, Grey Poupon, Bagel Bites, Classico, Lea & Perrins, Miracle Whip and Thanksgiving staple Stove Top. That's basically a store unto itself.
Planters looks almost nothing like the company founded in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., nearly 110 years ago. Mr. Peanut has been an employee of Standard Brands, Nabisco and, as of 2000, Kraft. Why he needs a car, and why it's driving down a parade route filled with kids who are more likely than ever to be diagnosed with peanut allergies, is beyond us.
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 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 1% year-to-date while global sales jump 4%, including a 33% jump in Russia alone. Oh, and the chicken driving U.S. appetites? Not "Kentucky Fried," but "Nashville Hot" -- with "the Colonel's" blessing.
Parade persona: The Aflac duck "balloonicle"
This float-balloon hybrid has become a fairly benign part of the parade landscape, which is more than Aflac could have hoped for after its 2011 parade debut.
That year, comedian Gilbert Gottfried --- the duck's voice for 11 years -- decided to make some jokes about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Gottfried was scolded by the marketing department and fired. A new voice was a found and the first commercial aired three months later. By the time the duck hit the streets of New York, the voice controversy had died down considerably. Today, it's a trivial matter that even the most loyal parade watcher is hard-pressed to remember. With parade sponsors long gone after courting controversy (SeaWorld) or imploding (Pets.com), Aflac knows that the best insurance its brand has is an inoffensive fallback plan.
Parade persona: Pirate's Booty Treasure Hunt float
Huge companies own organic brands now -- that's just how it is. The owner of B&G pickles, Cream Of Wheat, Grandma's Molasses and Ortega bought Pirate's Booty cheese-flavored corn puffs a few years back, but it was no greater shock than Clorox buying Burt's Bees, Colgate-Palmolive buying Tom's of Maine or General Mills Buying Annie's Homegrown.
Putting Pirate's Booty in the Thanksgiving parade, however, is the best change to leverage that big-company partnership into healthier eating. A parade that features a baseball-themed Cracker Jack float, a Domino Sugar float and a Ronald McDonald balloon just doesn't make room for a small brand on a shelf at a health-food shop run by hippies who never quite made it home from Woodstock. Organic needs big backing to survive, and brands like Pirate's Booty use it to battle these other brands at Costco, Wal-Mart and elsewhere. Why should the parade be any different?
Parade persona: Liberty's Torch float
That big gap between Thanksgiving and the winter holidays is exactly what Delta's 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. You could use those cheap tickets on last-minute trips to New York, but you may want to consider a warmer climate.
Parade persona: Pillsbury Dough Boy balloon
The 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 actually 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.
Parade persona: Skylanders Eruptor balloon
This ballon is just not going to age well.
For the last seven years, Activision's Skylanders games and toys use chips inside action figures to place characters into a video games via a "Portal of Power." The series has brought in more than $2 billion for Activision, but as we know the lifespan of things like this are all too fleeting. However, even if kids are growing out of it, there may be hope for Skylanders yet...
Parade persona: Pokemon's Pikachu balloon
Pokemon hasn't gone anywhere in 20 years. In fact, during its 20th anniversary, it managed to get people out into the streets for a few weeks in July to collect little pocket monsters that only existed on their phones. People trespassed on private property, ran their cars off the road, bumped into random and suddenly irate strangers -- great times! Pokemon Go was a pop-culture phenomenon, but was even more short-lived than those typically tend to be. In an increasingly virtual world of sliding attention spans, Pokemon may just be reaching their peak.
Parade persona: Ronald McDonald balloon
Back in 1986, when the chain was on its first of four balloons, kids were eating its meals with reckless abandon and skating Ronald commercials were holiday staples. Thirty years later, Ronald McDonald's fast-food chain is attached to a lifeline of all-day breakfast and two 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. To the inner child, he's the flavor of oversalted fries and the scent of cheese product melting over shin beef. To adults on Thanksgiving morning, he's a reminder of why they're thinking of buying an elliptical machine.
Parade persona: Thomas the Tank Engine balloon
Toys! Actual toys!
Mattel knows better than anyone that your penchant for just handing your child the nearest tablet is killing the toy industry. However, the continued strength of an anthropomorphized train that first appeared in books in 1946 and first debuted on television in 1984 has been a boon for the company. With tons of Thomas shows, videos, theme-park tie-ins (like the Edaville USA Thomas Land in Carver, Mass.) and other swag pushing sales of sprawling train sets, Thomas is a particularly buoyant balloon for Mattel.
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: Charlie Brown balloon and Snoopy's Doghouse float
It's as if the culture in general has pulled the football out from beneath Charlie Brown's foot.
Last year at this time, Charlie, Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang had their own movie and a sweet deal as mascots for MetLife. A year later -- despite a box-office performance that more than double the film's budget -- there's no impeding sequel and MetLife ended its Peanuts partnership. The Peanuts gang is now trapped in the yellowing world of print media and in their seasonal quest for the Great Pumpkin and a real Christmas tree. Charlie Brown always recovers nicely, but this year may not be his year.
Parade persona: SpongeBob SquarePants balloon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles float
Nickelodeon has wrong $12 billion in merchandising out of SpongeBob since his debut in 1999. With his tenth 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.
As for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, their latest animated run is still yielding fruit -- with Season 4's second half coming to DVD and streaming in December and merchandising dollars still flowing in. However, the latest film -- this 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.
Parade persona: On The Roll Again float
We know what you're thinking: "He's just going to blather on about winter travel again, isn't he?"
No. That's not really what this is all about. Sure, Hilton might want you to consider this chain as part of your off-peak travel plans, but it wants you to consider them a holiday option as well. People like to think they have inexhaustible patience with their loved ones, but many of us understand that 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 asking that you consider their suites if your family wants to spread out, get out of grandma's guest room for a little while and not listen to your uncle's thoughts on the election results or your aunt's recap of her latest ailment.
Parade persona: The Heartwarming Holiday Countdown float
This is a crucial year for the Crown Media Holdings-owned Hallmark Channel. Not only did Crown Media buy Liberty Media's stake and take the whole operation private, but its biggest holiday rival -- ABC Family and its 25 Days of Christmas -- is having a bit of an identity crisis right now.
This year, ABC Family charged straight at Millennials by rebranding itself as Freeform and embracing more of its Pretty Little Liars side. However, it's holding on to ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas for dear life and is still going to show 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 offerings and fewer second-tier, straight-to-video, B-movie Christmas travesties. That's where the Hallmark Channel comes in. Since October 29 (you read that right), the Hallmark Channel has scrubbed its slate of Golden Girls and Frasier reruns to bring you a slate of made-for-TV holiday classics featuring all the biggest stars of yesteryear. Alicia Witt, Lacey Chaubert, Danica McKellar, Joey Lawrence, Sir Roger Moore and many other barroom trivia answers will be filling the lineup all the way through Christmas day in an attempt to corner the market on holiday schmaltz. If you like the 25 Days of Christmas but hate watching familiar stories that a whole lot of other people enjoy, the Hallmark Channel hopes this float will steer you away from that confusing holiday buffet and over to its giant plate of cheese.