Jack Yarwood for polygon.com, | November 24, 2021

The Sonic Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade crash: An oral history

The infamous moment, as told by those who were there

Read at polygon.com

On Nov. 25, 1993, Sonic the Hedgehog made his debut as a balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. He was the first video game character to appear at the parade, and he was featured prominently in the event’s marketing on shopping bags and posters. Fans were excited. Video games were breaking through to the mainstream. But later that morning, an incident tempered all that enthusiasm.

As the 64-foot Sonic balloon exited Columbus Circle, near 58th Street and Broadway, a gust of wind blew it into a lamppost, lifting the post off the ground and injuring two people: a child and an off-duty police officer. Neither was seriously hurt, but the officer was taken to a hospital, and Sonic was immediately pulled from the parade, leaving Sega executives — who had been celebrating in a hotel near Times Square — to question what went wrong.

Though Sonic has appeared at multiple similar events over the years, more often than not without issue, the balloon malfunction in 1993 remains one of those stories that just won’t go away, helped in part by footage recently resurfacing online. So as the blue hedgehog gets ready to join the parade again this year, Polygon spoke to those responsible for the original Macy’s promotion as well as eyewitnesses at the scene, to find out more about that windy day in Columbus Circle.

Partnering with Macy’s

The Macy’s collaboration was just one in a long line of marketing stunts for Sonic. In October 1990, Tom Kalinske became the CEO and president of Sega of America, joining the company from toy manufacturer Mattel. Under his leadership, Sega made Sonic the Hedgehog into a household name. Kalinske, along with the rest of the marketing team at Sega of America, pitched the character as a rival to Nintendo’s Mario. Pretty soon, Sonic was everywhere, from video games to TV shows and comic books.

Kalinske claims that at one point Sonic had a higher Q Score, or “Quotient Score,” than Mickey Mouse; advertising research company Marketing Evaluations used the Q Score to measure the consumer familiarity and appeal of brands, celebrities, companies, and entertainment products. A huge part of Sonic’s success came down to Sega of America’s aggressive marketing campaigns and love of strange ideas.

Tom Kalinske Former CEO and president, Sega of America

Some of the things we did back in those days were very unusual. It doesn’t seem like it by today’s standards, but, believe it or not, no one advertised on MTV back then that was a game company. We were the first to do that. No one had their game set up outside of rock concerts; we did. Nobody had a representative on every college campus in America who was a Sega Genesis game player [who we asked to walk] around to the fraternities and the dormitories and plug the thing into the TV in the lounge and play Sega Genesis games. […] We did a lot of things like that, which was just unusual marketing. So the idea of a balloon in the Macy’s parade fits right in with the rest of that.

Ellen Beth Van Buskirk Knapp Former marketing services manager, Sega of America

No one thought Sonic was going to be anything. To get a McDonald’s Happy Meal was impossible, right?

In fact, I remember going to some pitch down at Coke, who were doing a lot of promotions, and saying, “This is the latest character that is going to drive teenage boys. You really, really want to co-op with us.” And I have forgotten the name of the executive who was in charge of these promotions, but he [wore] sunglasses the entire meeting. He was not going to have anything to do with us.

That changed, obviously. And that changed in a large part due to Tom Abramson [vice president of marketing and promotions at Sega] and his dynamic personality. Sooner or later we started to use Sonic in cereal boxes, and on television in cartoons; magazines and books for early readers. All kinds of merchandising and promotion. Macy’s falls into this.

Al Nilsen Former head of global marketing, Sega of America

Tom Abramson came up with the idea of wanting to go and put a balloon in the Macy’s parade, which was just an incredible idea because of the viewership, which was tremendous, and here’s Sonic larger than life.

Ellen Beth Van Buskirk Knapp Former marketing services manager, Sega of America

Doing a Macy’s balloon, you talk about eyeballs; you talk about television; you talk about cross-marketing and the idea of spiffing retailers into something they can’t get on their own. That return on investment gets a little less [prominent], and you still have to go in front of [former Sega of America executive vice president] Paul Rioux, the finance guy, […] and fight your case. If they said yes, though, then you could put it in your budget and you’d have to manage it through. I did that part of the process.

Al Nilsen Former head of global marketing, Sega of America

The whole idea behind [the campaign] was to increase hardware purchases and software purchases ... it wasn’t tied to the launch of a specific game. Which is great, because on Thanksgiving, you have four or five weeks until Christmas, so therefore it’s a maximum selling period for the people who were trying to go and decide if they want a SNES or they want a Genesis or a Mega Drive.

So Tom [Abramson] approached the parade department at Macy’s to talk about the possibility of this […] and video game characters hadn’t been done before. The characters tended to be very, very well-known and established characters who were there. But we were able to go and convince Macy’s that Sonic would be a great addition to the parade.

Plus, we paid for the balloon.

The design of the Sonic balloon

After Macy’s and Sega of America reached an agreement, the Sega marketing team provided the Macy’s Parade Studio — the production facility in Hoboken, New Jersey, responsible for making the balloons — with a Sonic bible.

The bible was a style guide that former Sega of America product manager Madeline Canepa (now Madeline Canepa Schroeder) and Al Nilsen created in 1991 to bring partners up to speed on Sonic lore, the PMS (Pantone Matching System) colors used for the character, and what the hedgehog looked like from different angles. Using this reference, the studio came up with different design sketches to pitch to Sega of America for approval, before arriving at its take on what we know today as classic Sonic.

Al Nilsen Former head of global marketing, Sega of America

At the time, we hadn’t done much evolution of Sonic. So we didn’t have modern Sonic. Sonic was just Sonic. But of course, there was Sonic how he looked in the game [...] and there was the fancy Sonic, which was the really highly defined Sonic on the cover of the games. It’s kind of like a photograph of Sonic, where the shadows are in the right place. [...]

Tom [Abramson], working with us, would say, “This is the pose we want Sonic to be in during the parade,” and the Macy’s designers would go away and say, “OK, here’s how we will go and replicate it in terms of what’s there.”

Tom Kalinske Former CEO and president, Sega of America

Tom Abramson [...] was really good at working with partners. We used to call it, “Let’s use other people’s money for our marketing.” So a lot of it was along that idea of: Let’s get a partner to spend some money, and we’ll spend some money, and the two put together is better than one. [...] So that was the basic modus operandi: to get a bigger bang for your buck from promotions. He was the guy who interfaced with them.

Ellen Beth Van Buskirk Knapp Former marketing services manager, Sega of America

Sonic had to be approachable and happy, but he also had to have a little amount of sass to him. How that got expressed is, you needed to please the client — and ultimately, Sega was the client, because we paid for a lot of it.

Brenda Lynch Former head of the Sonic account at PR firm Manning, Selvage & Lee

The key was that Sonic was the fastest video game character of the time, so the Macy’s Parade balloon had to reflect his attitude. There were many discussions and designs to ensure the balloon reflected Sonic’s iconic need for speed.

Before the design of Sonic, the parade balloons all floated down the parade route parallel to the street. Sonic was captured in midflight upward. This meant the ground crew had longer ropes in the front than the back, and consequently, less control over the balloon.

The day of the parade

On Thanksgiving Day, the Sonic balloon joined other debuting characters at the parade, like Rex from We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story and Beethoven the Dog, as well as old favorites such as Bart Simpson and Ronald McDonald, above the streets of New York. The conditions were far from perfect.

It was a cold and windy day in Manhattan. So, as a precaution, Macy’s assigned extra handlers to each balloon, and flew the balloons lower to the ground than originally planned. As is typical, each balloon on the day had a pilot and a captain who was responsible for training the handlers. Outside of the American Museum of Natural History, the pilot and captain for each balloon briefed the group of handlers — made up largely of volunteers from neighboring Macy’s stores — on hand signals and on how to maneuver themselves to cope with crosswinds. This included sprinting across crosswalks, since the buildings act as a natural wind tunnel, as well as holding before Columbus Circle to allow the balloon in front to clear the roundabout.

As the parade got underway, Sega of America staff were watching from an event thrown for Sega merchandisers and retailers at a hotel opposite the Marriott Marquis in Times Square — the plan being to see the Sonic balloon just before it reached its destination at the flagship Macy’s in Herald Square. But the guest of honor never arrived.

Ellen Beth Van Buskirk Knapp Former marketing services manager, Sega of America

We were having, let’s just say, a gathering or a party of all our important dignitaries: merchandisers, sales, retailers, everybody we worked with. So we were flying people in and entertaining them in New York on Thanksgiving Day with this parade, and the whole idea was, he was going to come in and it was going to be a big event [...] but he didn’t get there. So everybody at the party was like, Where’s Sonic? Where’s Sonic?

Al Nilsen Former head of global marketing, Sega of America

We looked in the distance and we were still not seeing Sonic. It was like, OK, where did they put him? And then came all of the balloon handlers in their Sonic colors. They were walking on by and there was no balloon. At that time, we didn’t know what in the world had happened. It was a strange moment for us.

Arik Cohen Ronald McDonald balloon handler and eyewitness

I was a balloon handler on Ronald McDonald, which was the balloon right behind Sonic in the parade. [...] Sonic, where it hit, was right at the end where it was trying to exit Columbus Circle. It had already made it around Columbus Circle and then it hit a lamppost as it was entering Broadway right on the end.

Since they had already made it out of the circle part, they had already let our balloon into Columbus Circle and then everything shut down, because there were people injured. We kind of heard this rumbling from the crowd that Sonic went down. And then all of a sudden, our balloon captain was like, “I need you guys to focus because the winds are bad here.”

We were literally getting directions to go left, right, and to keep [the line] tight. And we spent what seemed like an eternity — but was probably only 10 minutes — going back and forth. Eventually, we saw security folks going in that direction and we got the all clear. That’s when we saw the balloon on its side already deflated.

Brenda Lynch Former head of the Sonic account at PR firm Manning, Selvage & Lee

As I remember it, when the balloon hit the lamppost, the glass fell onto the crowd, hitting a retired police officer, and a small child was trampled on when the crowd moved back from the falling glass. The police walkie-talkies reported the incident as a “police officer down,” adding to the chaos of the day.

We didn’t want the press saying Sonic had taken down a police officer. [...] It felt like every TV station and newspaper across the nation ran the story. I know that the writers for the Friends TV show found the story so funny that it became the basis of “The One Where Underdog Gets Away” [which aired one year later], with Underdog replacing Sonic.

Tom Kalinske Former CEO and president, Sega of America

The injuries were the thing I was most concerned about. I’m not sure we knew the full extent of that, that day. We probably didn’t know the full extent of that until a day or two later.

Al Nilsen Former head of global marketing, Sega of America

We heard that he had gone into a light pole and that was it. Then after that, we heard that somebody had gotten injured. I think we heard that just one person had gotten injured. The police officer, I guess, is what I heard. We actually sent someone to the hospital to check on the police officer.

Brenda Lynch Former head of the Sonic account at PR firm Manning, Selvage & Lee

I had come into town with my husband and two small children to handle the press on Thanksgiving Day and then have a vacation. Instead, I spent two days hanging out in the hospital making sure the two people who were injured were OK and not going to make the incident even more sensational.

Ellen Beth Van Buskirk Knapp Former marketing services manager, Sega of America

[There was] huge concern [inside Sega]. At least in the state where we are today, we have a highly litigious, highly activist-oriented society who are all armed with mobile devices to capture any injustice in the world.

Had that been the case in ’93, we might have had a different outcome. But in ’93/’94, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. [...] We were very fortunate that the harm that was done was not beyond [what it was] and it turned out to be OK for that family. It turned out to be OK for our company. It turned out to be OK for Macy’s.

Tom Kalinske Former CEO and president, Sega of America

It really wasn’t as big a deal as people make it out to be, other than a person getting hurt, frankly.

When I heard about that, that was the biggest concern. It was, My God, how serious is it? Because we didn’t know initially. So the fact the balloon didn’t come down the street in front of maybe 5,000 people on the street watching, it didn’t matter, as long as the millions watching on TV saw the Sonic balloon. Frankly, from a marketing standpoint, it wasn’t really a disaster at all.

Al Nilsen Former head of global marketing, Sega of America

It was unfortunate that it hurt two people, but it wasn’t a long-lasting story. I think it was in some of the New York papers and on TV for the next day, but then it wasn’t talked about. The reason I think it is talked about now is because of the popularity of Sonic as a character. Some people who want to know more about Sonic go and bring it up and unearth all of these photos and things like that. Ones that we had never seen at the time. It was unfortunate that it happened, but Sonic keeps spinning along.

Sonic floats above the streets of New York, with handlers moving him forward slowly
Sonic last appeared in the parade in 2013, as seen here.
Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Sonic flies again

Sonic’s appearance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1993 is considered by many fans to be a disaster. But the Sega of America alumni speaking for this story disagree.

The day the balloon was pulled, television broadcasts still showed B-roll footage of Sonic (taken from an earlier test flight), giving the character the all-important TV coverage that Sega had expected from the campaign. The injuries sustained also weren’t serious, with all involved acknowledging that the weather was the cause of the incident.

Sega had the balloon fixed up and flown at other events, including at “Hedgehog Day” in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in February 1994 for the Sonic the Hedgehog 3 release. Sonic even appeared at the following Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in November 1994, where it completed the route without a problem — and Cohen was among the handlers on Sonic that year. The balloon handlers weren’t as lucky in 1995 and 1997, with the mascot again being pulled early, but this time without injury.

The old balloon was retired in 1997, and a new balloon depicting modern Sonic debuted in the 2011 parade (and subsequently appeared in the 2012 and 2013 parades). It’s this balloon that will be making a reappearance this year. And it’s something the Sega alumni couldn’t be happier about.

Al Nilsen Former head of global marketing, Sega of America

We’re all excited about that. When the news came out, the Sonic team from way-back-when were exchanging emails like, “He’s back!”

Tom Kalinske Former CEO and president, Sega of America

It’s going to be interesting to see this Thanksgiving Day Parade. I’m sure this will get a lot of attention, because it crashed 30 years ago. It will probably get more attention this year than it ever would have before.

Ellen Beth Van Buskirk Knapp Former marketing services manager, Sega of America

The Sega alumni still talk to each other, so it’s like, Hey, Tom’s got an interview, or Sonic’s going to be here, or Do you know it’s the anniversary? Al’s really good at marking anniversaries. That goes on in the backdrop, and we are an incredibly connected universe of people who were kind of in the lifeboats together.

I watch the parade every Thanksgiving Day. I do turn it on. I have coffee to that parade. [...] There’s a certain amount of nostalgia and verisimilitude. It’s like, you get to be transported into a place that’s different.

Al Nilsen Former head of global marketing, Sega of America

The strangest part is going online and reading about all of the people who just love Sonic, love the original Sonic, love and remember the launch of Sonic and the launch of Genesis. And now Sonic is going to lead the retro gaming experience that is going on. That’s the thing that gets all of us. Here we are 30 years later, and people are talking and loving and showing their love and their passion for what we did 30 years ago.