Internet icons on parade?

Jeeves is the first Net character to get a float at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Who'll be next?

Published September 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has long served as a paean not just to America's pop culture icons, but to the success of corporate branding. Once a year, Americans can proudly salute not only modish comic, film and television heroes like Spiderman, the Cat in the Hat, Snoopy, the Rugrats and Austin Powers, but also corporate mascots like the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, the Quik bunny and Mr. Peanut.

This year, they'll be introduced to a character that will likely leave many viewers scratching their heads: Jeeves. As in Ask Jeeves, the "butler" who serves as the mascot for the natural language search engine that allows users to find information by inputting specific questions.

Although Jeeves won't be making an appearance in helium-balloon form -- instead, he'll be earth-bound as a 16-foot sculpture on a float, sitting atop a pile of resource manuals -- he'll still be, as Macy's press release crows, " the first Internet company and the first Internet-born character to join the ranks of the longest running show on Broadway!" According to Ronnie Taffet, the vice president of public relations for Macy's, the parade was approached by several Internet companies but it chose Jeeves for its "educational value."

"We want to make Jeeves a part of our culture, a pop icon. This is an important step, as well as a validation that other people are starting to see Jeeves as a powerful icon as well," says Ted Briscoe, senior vice president of the consumer answering service at Ask Jeeves. "We've really tried to give human characteristics to Jeeves; we're trying to bring him to life."

Considering how much money is currently being spent on advertising by technology companies, it's likely that Jeeves will soon be joined by other digital compatriots. According to CMR estimates, recently quoted in the Industry Standard, technology companies spent $436 million on promotion in "traditional media outlets" in 1998. Last year's dot-com coup was half-time ads during the Superbowl;
it seems this year's advertising conquest for companies newly flush with IPO money is the Thanksgiving parade.

Just imagine next year's line-up -- Ask Jeeves' competitor Lycos has its laborator retriever; Netscape's got Mozilla; MySimon's got, well, Simon; FreeBSD has its devil -- and what about the Linux penguin, or an IPO-happy Red Hat? Then, of course, there are some old favorites, like the Windows start-up symbol and AOL's "you've got mail" mailbox.

But then again, those technology icons will have to pass the Macy's filter, which requires, according to Taffet, that characters be "ones that children recognize and children love. That's where the parade comes from -- it's for children of all ages." Just how recognizable Jeeves may be to even the most plugged-in schoolchildren is up for debate (one could probably make the argument that the Windows start-up symbol has more kid-recognition punch). But, with 60 million people expected to tune in to the parade, undoubtedly a lot more kids will know who Jeeves is after turkey day.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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