The birth of the Conan blimp

My mother lives in a high-rise in downtown Philadelphia. We were talking on the phone last week when she suddenly stopped and said, in a wondering voice: "Look at that. It's a dirigible," accenting the second syllable: di-RIG-ible. (My mom is elderly.) I realized later it was the Conan blimp, a brilliant viral marketing gambit for the upcoming Conan O'Brien show on TBS. The blimp is fitted out with a number of whiz-bang bells and whistles, including the capability to auto-check in at Foursquare, if you go for that sort of thing. And I wondered: Where does an idea like this come from? The blimp itself was designed by Blue Sky, an Atlanta agency, with web design and social-media stuff by Breakfast, a New York firm with an appealing retro-futuristic sensibility. It shouldn't be surprising, I guess, that the lightbulb moment for guys like these came when somebody sat up straight and blurted out: "A blimp!" Or maybe, in this case, "A dirigible!" And in a sense, the roots of the Conan blimp go back, way back, all the way back to May of 2010. (All right, maybe that's not so far back, but things move so fast nowadays.) That's when Breakfast rigged, for the New York design event MunNY, an iPad-controlled video blimp. It was 52 inches long, silver, and video-enabled (of course it was) and it circled the MunNY afterparty at a dizzying height of about eight feet, beaming a live feed back down to the skinny, well-dressed crowd below. What was it Springsteen said -- "From small things, mama, big things one day come."



  1. Wait — how do you pronounce dirigible? I pronounce it like your mom, and I wouldn’t call thirty-eight “elderly”. :P

  2. In the early years at NBC, didn’t Andy sidekick for Conan from a blimp, via satellite?

    As I recall, Conan dared Andy to open the door, as it was held shut by a flimsy latch.

    It could have been a helicopter.

  3. just saw a Conan blimp gag on Letterman, although it was more of a Conan blimp cameo zipping through the model backdrop behind Dave’s desk

    classy Dave as always, giving some of his competition some promotion

  4. I think this idea is actually from William Gibson novels (although I don’t know where he got the idea); both Spook Country and Zero Hour reference these blimps, Zero Hour specifically references the Ipad controls.

  5. that party blimp looks annoying as all hell in a real party situation. the perfect victim for a gesticulating cigarette.

  6. With this and remote controlled mini helicopters, it is just a question of time until we read the headline ‘Celebrity killed by battling papparazzi flying cams’

  7. Wow, that was weird – the same moment I was reading about Conan’s blimp, I looked up to see Letterman showing a clip of Jay Leno & Pat Morito shooting the blimp out of the sky…synchronized mass media…

  8. Anon was right the concept is ripped straight out of Zero History. STRAIGHT out. William Gibson got fired up when he was introduced to Festo air penguins by one of his fans & incorporated them to make as a major device in the book, as an ad agency uses them for all manner of viral marketing and later,surveillance .

    Dude should be getting a cut out of this. Or at least a polite namecheck.

  9. Unless it’s manned, it’s not a blimp, it’s an AEROSTAT.

    And diRIGible is indeed pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, unless you’re Irish or something.

  10. So what exactly is the Received Pronunciation for dirigible? Apparently accepted, according to Merriam-Webster, are accents on either the first or the second syllable. I’d like to add one data point for my accent on the second.

  11. The accent on the second syllable is the most common pronunciation. Anyone that pronounces it otherwise is unamerican.

  12. I’ve never heard “dirigible” pronounced any other way. However, I also never knew that the word could be used as an adjective meaning “steerable”.

    1. “diriger” is the French verb for driving (steering) – hence something which is dirigible would be steerable. Further, in French, the emphasis would be on the third syllable: di-rig-I-ble (or however one indicates syllables in French).


      1. this would seem to indicate that at one point, they were probably called “dirigible balloons,” or something like “balloons dirigibles” in French.

        In other words, it was to distinguish v1.0 balloons that traveled only at the whim of prevailing wind with v2.0 balloons that could be directed (though the wind probably has the final say)

        eventually, the “balloon” designation must have been dropped similar to how we now think “book-sized computer” when we say “laptop”–the “computer” is implied as we seldom refer to our laptops for any other reason. This is all intuition, but it makes me wonder now that the boingers identified the other definition.

        As for Zeppelins, I read they’re named after German inventor Count Zeppelin. I think the metal body is the distinction?

        And for the pronunciation: if his mama is wrong, then I don’t wanna be right!

  13. What’s “viral” about this? It’s regular advertising. Just because it garners attention and people are talking about it doesn’t mean it’s “viral,” it means it’s working.

  14. If you’re suggesting that those of us who pronounce dirigible with the emphasis on the second syllable are a bunch of old geezers, then all I have to say to you is: Get off my lawn, you young whipper-snapper! You dadburned kids with your bobby socks and your Hi-Fi phonographs think you know everything, don’t you? Well, let me tell you, sonny, folks of my generation have forgotten more than you kids will ever know. Now … what were we talking about?

  15. I would say the real origin of the “viral” use of a blimp in advertising can be traced to the Ron Paul blimp of 2007 – 2008.

  16. A blimp is a non-rigid airship: when deflated it collapses like a balloon. A dirigible is a rigid airship: there’s a metal structure which holds the gasbags. Zeppelins were a particular brand of dirigible. Blimps are not uncommon, but I don’t think any dirigibles have flown since the 1930s.

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