Bibendum The Michelin Man

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The Michelin Man BibendumDid you know that The Michelin Man’s real name is Bibendum?  This is the story of how he came to be, and made it to the very top of the list of best-known advertising characters in the world.

Édouard and André Michelin ran a factory in Clermont-Ferrand, France, that manufactured rubber products.  One day, a bicyclist came to the factory asking them to repair the tire on his bike.  Upon examination, the Michelin brothers found that the pneumatic tire was glued to its rim.  Fixing the tire was an extremely time-consuming job as the tire had to be unglued, patched and glued back to the rim.  After all this, the tire failed after a few hundred meters.  It was because of this experience that the Michelin brothers decided to create a pneumatic tire that was not glued to a rim.

In 1891 the brothers patented an air-filled tire that had a pneumatic tube that could be removed from the rim.  During this time, most vehicles used tired that were solid or had tubes glued to the rims.  After only a year of being manufactured by Michelin, 10,000 Frenchmen were riding around on bicycles using tires with removable pneumatic tubes.

A few years later, the brothers were walking around the Lyon Exhibition.  They walked past a display of different sized tires piled up.  History tells that Edouard noticed that the pile of tires resembled a man.  In 1897, the brothers hired a poster artist named O’Galop to create the Michelin Man, based on the piled tires.

Michelin Man Ad

Michelin Man ad (1898)

In 1898 The Michelin Man, named Bibendum, was born.  The first advertising poster depicted The Michelin Man standing behind a banquet table holding a goblet filled with metal nails and pieces of glass.  He proclaims, “Nunc est bibendum,” which is Latin for “Let us drink.”  The toast represents the company’s motto, “Le Pneu Michelin Boit L’Obstacle,” which means “Michelin Tires Swallow Up All Obstacles.” Two men representing competing tire companies are deflated and cower beside the strong Michelin Man.

In the beginning, Bibendum’s appearance was based on bicycle tires, so his “rolls” were thinner.  That is also why he is white.  Back then tires were either gray or a light beige.  They weren’t black until 1912 when carbon was added as a preservative.  Bibendum wore pince-nez spectacles with a lorgnette (a long handle used to hold up his glasses) and smoked cigars.  These characteristics helped him relate to the upper class, who were primarily the ones riding bicycles and driving automobiles.

In the early years, the competition between tire companies was fierce.  Advertisements showed mascots fighting one another, and violence played a large part.  By the 1920s the tone of the advertisements changed, and Bibendum took on a friendlier appearance.  He got rid of the lorgnette and even stopped smoking – all done to appeal to a larger audience.  The advertisements showed Bibendum in more playful situations such as riding a bike or throwing tires like Frisbees.  He is even shown helping a family with a flat tire by giving them one of the tires from his belly.

Bibendum’s appearance and good attitude stayed the same for many years.  It was not until his 100th birthday in 1998 that he went through another change.  He was given a slimmed-down appearance, with thinner tire rolls.  This was in response to the public’s concerns with obesity, and also reflected the availability of lower-profile sport tires.

The public loves Bibendum’s pudgy appearance, and he has even made it into the pop culture language.  People use the term “Michelin Man” to refer to someone with a little extra weight around their midsection, or a person wearing very bulky clothing.  Collectible merchandise has been available for many years, and there has even been a traveling Michelin Man exhibition at contemporary art museums!

Bibendum The Michelin Man has extraordinary staying power and the ability to relate to different classes of people and cultures around the world.  For more than a century he has been the face of Michelin, representing the company in print ads, television commercials, and personal appearances.  Michelin has been at the top of the list of successful tire manufacturing companies for many years, and that’s largely in part due to the success of its advertising campaign and the loveable Bibendum.

Last updated: Mar 13, 2009
Filed under: Retro Characters Tagged with: advertising, Retro Characters