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  • Marketing Michelin: Advertising and Cultural Identity in Twentieth-Century France
  • Ellen Furlough
Marketing Michelin: Advertising and Cultural Identity in Twentieth-Century France. By Stephen L. Harp (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xiii plus 356 pp. $42.00).

The title of Stephen Harp’s highly intelligent and engaging book connotes more than one might initially suspect. On the one hand, Marketing Michelin is a focused effort to sort out the business history of how Michelin, a conservative and family owned French tire business, used direct marketing strategies to sell and [End Page 274] create demand for its high quality tires. Yet, Marketing Michelin also addresses the firm’s successful indirect marketing strategies, demonstrating how it associated the Michelin name with tourism, patriotism, pronatalism and paternalism, aviation, “Americanization”, and regional gastronomy in early twentieth-century France. Harp’s emphasis on marketing provides important new perspectives on Michelin’s business success prior to 1940. It also demonstrates how a traditional and politically conservative family-owned firm helped forge key aspects of twentieth century French culture and national identity.

Harp’s analysis begins in 1898 when Michelin introduced Bibendum, its company icon. At that time the firm was a leader in the production of pneumatic bicycle tires. By 1900 Michelin achieved dominance in the French market for automobile tires, and on the eve of World War I Michelin supplied approximately a third of the world’s tires. While bicycles were becoming mass-market goods, automobiles remained elite commodities. Michelin thus had a vested interest in encouraging automobile travel as a way to sell tires, and in educating new consumers as to its uses and capabilities. Bibendum, Harp argues, helped to do both. Appearing in posters and the press as a well to do Frenchman who embodied contemporary assumptions about class and racial privileges and appropriate activities (such as automobile travel and tourism), Bibendum also dispersed advice on technical matters pertaining to autos and tires.

After the war, Michelin worked hard to maintain its market share against the robust efforts of American tire manufacturers. One strategy was to link the firm’s name with French patriotism and the national interest. Fusing automobile tourism with patriotism, Michelin issued guides to the battlefields of the Western Front that emphasized the war’s defensive nature in patriotic language. Michelin donated the profits from the battlefield guidebooks to France’s major pronatalist organization, the Alliance Nationale, at the same time that it provided paternalistic family-oriented policies for its workforce. Harp claims that Michelin’s pronatalism and its well-publicized system of family allowances for its workers contributed to the later political consensus that supported the modern French welfare state. Both the battlefield guidebooks and its pronatalist efforts enhanced the firm’s self promotion as a patriotic firm selling French tires.

Harp breaks new ground with his superb research and analysis of Michelin’s key role in the early development of the French tourist industry. He demonstrates Michelin’s key role in fueling demand for automobile travel as a pleasurable way to discover France and generate economic growth. The company provided “service to the client” with tourist offices that arranged itineraries, and with what has become perhaps its most enduring form of indirect advertising: the Michelin Guide, or Guide Rouge (the first appeared in 1900). Michelin also helped shape and modernize France’s tourist infrastructure by providing signs and road markers as well as maps oriented toward automobile travel. Michelin fused tourism, regionalism, and gastronomy during the interwar period by reinventing its Red Guides and launching regional guidebooks. Both guides reflected the growing touristic interest in the regions of France and their “authentic” cuisines and helped shape France’s tourist-oriented landscape. The Michelin Guide’s system of stars, in place and refined by 1933, ranked the “best” restaurants in places touted as tourist sites. This proved to be a brilliant marketing device as it not [End Page 275] only put the Michelin name in front of the French (and foreign) public, but also promoted French regional sites and cuisines as tourist destinations. Harp provides a nuanced understanding of how modern travel, in cars sporting Michelin tires, not only became a patriotic way...

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pp. 274-277
Launched on MUSE
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