5 Most Ill-Fated Corporate Thanksgiving Parade Balloons

Jason Notte

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- There are few bigger company endorsements than a balloon in the Macy's(:M) Thanksgiving Day Parade, but all it takes is one misstep to burst that helium-inflated corporate ego boost.

Not every company's mascot gets the rubber treatment, so those that see their corporate symbol stitched together at Macy's workshop in Hoboken, N.J., trucked through the Lincoln Tunnel, inflated beside the Museum of Natural History and floated through the streets of Manhattan are among the lucky few. Unfortunately, every few years or so, that good fortune turns fickle and injures a few folks along the parade route.

Before buying a giant, helium bloated billboard for Thanksgiving morning, every marketing department in the country should be shown footage of the 1997 parade. That year, a giant balloon shaped like Dr. Seuss' beloved Cat In The Hat was pushed around by high winds and crashed into a streetlight. Debris from that light hit a woman below, fractured her skull and left her in a coma for roughly a month.

After the accident the New York City Police Department went along the parade route stabbing balloon versions of The Pink Panther and Barney to bring them down. That was the end of the Cat In The Hat, Woody Woodpecker and all of the parade's much bigger balloons; the fallout led to size restrictions from that point on.

Unfortunately for companies, a parade balloon doesn't even need to be involved in an accident to damage a business and its reputation. We thumbed through the history of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and found five examples of parade balloons companies never should have inflated:

Sonic The Hedgehog

Balloon year: 1993

These were the good old days for Sega.

Its Genesis system was a rousing success. It was drawing gamers away from the video game industry's reigning champion, the Nintendo Entertainment System, and forced its rival to release the Super Nintendo in 1991. Most importantly, it had gained a mascot in Sonic The Hedgehog that could go toe-to-toe with Nintendo's Mario.

Unfortunately, Sonic's lighter-than-air incarnation proved a bit more unwieldy than his video game counterpart. It crashed into a streetlight at Columbus Circle (this happens a lot during parade history, which really makes us wonder about streetlight placement along the parade route). The debris from the light injured an off-duty cop, a big no-no in NYC.

Sonic disappeared from the parade lineup for two decades, while Sega began a slow slide into obscurity that began with the release of the poorly received Sega Saturn in 1995 and ended with Sega out of the console game altogether by 2001. The next time Sonic appeared in the Thanksgiving parade in 2011, it was as a character in Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games for former rival Nintendo's 3DS system. How deflating.

Buddy from Pets.com

Balloon year: 1999

Technically a "falloon" -- a float/balloon combination -- Buddy was still about a year away from becoming the sock puppet symbol of the bursting dot-com bubble.

It was conspicuous market spending such as this that got Pets.com into trouble in the first place. A Thanksgiving Day balloon, a Super Bowl ad in 2000 and a whole lot of mascot interviews for magazines and talk shows helped the online pet supply retailer blow through $300 million in venture capital in little more than two years.

By the following Thanksgiving -- less than 300 days after its stock went public -- the company had liquidated all its assets. The rights to the Michael Ian Black-voiced puppet Buddy were sold to an auto loan company, who used the sock-puppet in commercials featuring the message "Everyone deserves a second chance." Surprisingly, the dot-com bubble would get that second chance with yet another Thanksgiving balloon ...

Ask Jeeves

Balloon year: 2001

Not so much a symbol of failure as the mascot of the Internet's fading old guard, AskJeeves was a novelty with not much else built around it.

Founded in 1996, Ask Jeeves was a search engine that searched both by keyword and by answering questions asked of it: Kind of like Apple's (:AAPL) Siri with a keyboard and a really bulky monitor. That novel service allowed it to go public under the ticker ASKJ in 1999 and kept it on the market until it was snatched up by Barry Dillers InterActiveCorp(:IACI) in 2005.

That was the end of Jeeves, as IAC phased out the character and changed the site's identity to Ask.com. By that time, however, nobody really seemed to care. Google (:GOOG) had just gone public and IAC was getting busy buying up Internet afterthoughts such as About.com and the parent company of Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com. Ask.com was reduced to the logo on Bobby Labonte's NASCAR ride. By 2010, Ask.com was out of the search engine game altogether, leaving behind a string of question and answer pages that appear whenever you enter a question into a search engine.

Though Jeeves lingered much longer than some of his dot-com counterparts, he serves as a reminder of the fickle nature of the Internet. The state of Ask Jeeves was perhaps best summed up by Aziz Anzari's character Tom Haverford on NBC's Parks and Recreation last season after realizing his own fast-rising business venture was flickering out of existence: "My company is no better than a company where you ask a fake butler to Google things for you."


Balloon year: 2005

Irrelevance and bankruptcy happen. You can deal with that. Actually injuring potential consumers? That's much tougher to get over.

Especially when you injure those customers waiting near the site of your nearly completed megastore. Such was Mars' nightmare in 2005 when balloons shaped like M&M's chocolate candies snagged a streetlight in Times Square and hurt a pair of sisters with the falling debris. The 24,000-square-foot, three-level glass M&M's World store was little less than a year away from opening, and this was the first impression M&M's made on the new neighborhood.

The M&M World store opened without a hitch, but the wayward M&Ms pretty much ruined everything else. Once again new safety measures were introduced. Wind measurement devices were installed along the parade route, parade organizers kept balloons closer to the ground and a mandate was imposed: No balloons in winds of more than 24 miles per hour.

Stupid candy-coated chocolates.

The Aflac(:AFL) Duck

Balloon year: 2011

This probably seemed like a heck of an idea when Aflac signed up for it a year before. A big inflated spot in the parade, a familiar animal mascot made larger than life. What could go wrong?

For Aflac and its duck in 2011, just about everything.

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried had provided the duck's voice for 11 years but, last March, decided to make some jokes about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Gottfried's a button-pusher and Aflac had to see this coming, right? Nope. Gottfried was scolded by the marketing department and summarily canned. A week later, the company began an Internet search for its new duck voice. It took more than a month to track down somebody else, and the 36-year-old ad sales manager from Minnesota filling the duck's webbed feet didn't quite have Gottfried's trademark vocals or celebrity cachet. The first new commercial aired in May, but a beleaguered public seemed indifferent.

By the time the duck hit the streets of New York in November, the voice controversy had died down a bit but was still awkward for the NBC announcer team and everyone involved. It may have sparked a few Thanksgiving morning conversations, but probably fewer pertaining to insurance than Aflac would have liked.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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