Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition has a unique ability to judge how the market will respond to logos and brands. At the root of this rare talent, for which Bigend employs her, is a “phobic reaction” to trademarks she’s had since age 6 when she threw up after seeing The Michelin Man in a French catalog. Otherwise known as “Bibendum,” the 114-year-old, anthropomorphic stack of tires remains her biggest weakness.
Dorotea takes her time unfastening the envelope. She reaches inside. Pulls out a square of art board the size of the last one. On it is the Michelin Man, in one of his earliest, most stomach−churningly creepy manifestations, not the inflated−maggot de−shelled Ninja Turtle of the present day, but that weird, jaded, cigar−smoking elder creature suggesting a mummy with elephantiasis. “Bibendum,” says Dorotea, softly.
Cayce’s adverse response to trademarks is a central theme in the book as she wrestles with her own over-astuteness (hence the title), particularly in relation to her father’s mysterious death.
Bibendum himself is particularly effective as the chief offender of her phobia, both because he is creepy and weird, and because he is one of the world’s oldest continuing trademarks, and a breakthrough in marketing history. So what the hell is Bibendum, or the Michelin Man, that blobby white creature currently rendered in CGI with big Bambi eyes?
In 1898, French artist O’Galop first conceived a stack of tires as a chubby man, commissioned by French tire entrepreneurs the Michelin brothers. His original form was different that we’d recognize, his bands thinner and beige or grey to reflect the rubber tires at the time, always wearing a pince-nez and smoking a cigar. In his original advertising poster, the creature is having dinner with other creepy tire creatures, holding up a cocktail glass full of sharp debris, and raising a toast: ”Nunc est bibendum!! C’est à dire: À votre santé. Le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle (“Now we must drink… That is to say, to your health. The Michelin tire drinks up obstacles”). The implication is, this boisterous, elite tire creature cares not about road hazards, instead he drinks them as though they were a cocktail while his saggy competitors look on with fear.
So he became known as “Bibendum,” and later “The Michelin Man.”
He appeared in hundreds of turn of the century French advertising posters, the kind commonly seen on dorm room walls, always with his cigar and glasses, a signet ring and a cocky swagger that comes with invulnerability. Over time, he lost the cigar and jewelry and tires got fatter. But his basic look, and that pasty white color, would continue to be an undeniable symbol of a brand of tires, even after its origins and rationale faded from public memory.
This kind of inescapable mental association makes Bibendum a monument and juggernaut of marketing, an icon once cooked up for a poster, that now lives in our minds whether we want him there or not, intertwined with a built object still up for sale after more than a hundred years. A blast of recognizability that would make a hypersensitive trademark savant recoil upon sight.
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