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Marketing Michelin: Advertising and Cultural Identity in Twentieth-Century France

Author(s):Harp, Stephen L.
Reviewer(s):Redmount, Esther

Published by EH.Net and H-Business (September 2002)

Harp, Stephen L., Marketing Michelin: Advertising and Cultural Identity in

Twentieth-Century France. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University

Press, 2001, ix + 356p., $39.95 (Hardcover), ISBN:0-8018-6651-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net and H-Business by Esther Redmount, Department of Economics

and Business, Colorado College

“With few exceptions (food, shelter, sex), our needs are cultural . . . ” — a

short pithy way of summarizing the now vast literature of consumption theory

and, in effect, inviting us — historians, anthropologists, sociologists and

economists — to question taste. If we accept that things have cultural meaning

and that personal satisfaction is somehow tied to the cultural meaning of

things, cultural constructs can be devised to play on that meaning and, in so

doing, promote and sustain or alternatively, diminish and redirect, demand.

Those are the basic premises behind marketing in general and advertising in

particular. Identity is bound up with what we eat, wear, drive and play.

It may also follow that we, the historians and archaeologists of culture, can

gain insight into social, political and even economic constructs by focusing on

the ads and marketing gimmicks of a bygone era which manipulated the sense of

identity for economic ends. Promoting and sustaining a demand for tires was the

raison d’etre of the Michelin Company, or so I would have said prior to reading

a new book from Johns Hopkins University Press, Marketing Michelin:

Advertising and Identity in 20th Century France, by Stephen L. Harp, a

historian of France at the University of Akron. One happy and, I would suspect,

intentional outcome of this exploration in economic and cultural history is to

make overly reductionistic readings of firm behavior pass?.

Michelin is a fascinating company, worthy of study, in several respects. The

name itself is associated with high quality automobile tires and longevity in a

highly concentrated, rivalrous industry. It is also the source of the

ubiquitous red and green guides that define tourism for many of us. Though it

did not invent the star system of restaurant ratings, Michelin’s ranking of

restaurants has enshrined fine dining in the consciousness of many. And there

are few who would not recognize what Americans call the Michelin Man, though as

Harp reminds us, his name is Bibendum and a great deal of effort went into

making him recognizable to several generations of potential buyers of tires.

The Michelin name is also associated with innovative wage and payment systems,

an outgrowth of the Michelin brothers’ commitment to both Frederick Winslow

Taylor and their own very public, pro-natalist positions in the inter-war

period. How, Harp asks, are we to understand the investment in these highly

visible, but seemingly tangential forays from the main enterprise of producing

and selling tires and what does the very nature of these marketing ploys tell

us about France, the French and the market?

Harp is not the first in this field of cultural production, but his approach is

an illuminating one. Demand for tires is, as economists would say, a derived

demand and therefore not a commodity whose meaning is easy to decipher. Tires

“derive” their value from their complementarity to various modes of

transportation. Why should the consumer pay any more attention to the tire than

they do to the spark plugs or distributor caps of their cars? It is fairly easy

to see how identity may be bound up with the kind of car you drive though, in

fairness, marketers and advertisers have been at work a long time to make that

connection clear.

Harp’s answer is to show us in a thorough and convincing way the evolution over

time in Michelin’s use of Bibendum and its regular written publications, Le

Lundi and the development of its red and green guides. What started out in the

late 19th century as a mode of instruction for the users of a new product

quickly became the means by which those with time and means could get off the

“beaten track.” Being able to get off the beaten track was equated with the

luxury of touring, and the message that this required not only maps and other

guides, but good tires, was not lost on bicyclists or drivers at the dawn of

the motoring age. Later in the history of the company, exploring the highways

and byways of France was given explicitly patriotic and later religious

overtones, as drivers made the pilgrimage to WWI battlefield sites. Over time,

the Michelin tire became the means to fulfilling what began as a pleasure and

mutated into a sacred duty. Still later, Michelin would tie good tires to the

business of transporting the nations’ goods, thereby completing the process of

transmuting what had once been a luxury into a necessity for the individual and

for France.

Harp’s chronological approach has much to recommend it. In using the passage of

time to move his narrative along, he emphasizes Michelin’s agency in the

process of building its market. He can also extract a great deal of mileage

from the ambiguity of saying Michelin. Does he mean Andr?, the marketing genius

who lived in Paris and devised much of Michelin Tire’s advertising agenda? Does

he mean Edouard, the production genius who organized and oversaw the factory

work in Clermont-Ferrand? Or does Harp refer to the company as distinct from

the actions of the brothers? Where is the agency in a family firm? Did the

Michelin company support pro-natalist policies as a means of selling tires or

did the elder brother use the resources of the company to promote a personal

agenda? While the ambiguity may not trouble cultural historians, economists

have a narrative of how firms as agents behave and it would be illuminating to

have this ambiguity further explored.

The chronological approach also allows Harp to put structuralist and

post-structuralist theory in his footnotes. Letting his narrative unfold with

the 20th century obviates what many readers find tendentious anyway. The

repetitions that sometimes occur when history or advertising repeats itself may

be a small price to pay for a simplicity of presentation that avoids

controversial meta-narratives.

The downside of the chronological approach may be apparent only to the economic

and business historians in Harp’s audience. Economists and business historians

tell stories that suggest that markets have structures that impinge on the

agency of individual players. The use of marketing and advertising are tactics

in a basket of strategies firms might pursue to obtain market power. What does

Michelin’s history — in particular its highly visible marketing strategy —

tell us about the construction and maintenance of market and political power in

highly concentrated industries? More economic data, presented much earlier,

would have been helpful. It is not that Harp does not offer some background on

Michelin’s major competitors; rather, these data are not presented until

two-thirds of the way through his text. Given Harp’s access to company records,

it would also have been illuminating to know more about the profitability of

the family firm. Sprinkled here and there through the text (a by-product again

of a chronological approach) are inklings of how Michelin fortunes waxed and

waned, but only inklings.

Stephen Harp’s Marketing Michelin is a fascinating, well-researched book. His

strengths as a historian and speaker of French are well displayed here. His

archival work is also very impressive. If the book does not entirely succeed in

its objective to wed cultural and economic history, it is certainly a worthy

effort in that direction.

Esther Redmount teaches Economics in the Department of Economics and Business

at Colorado College. Her primary research interests are in the Economics of

Organization and Labor Supply. She also teaches for CC’s Women’s Studies


Notes: James B. Twitchell, Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American

Materialism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 27

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII