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ForbesA new book celebrates Pirelli's erotic giveaway--still striving to arouse brand loyalty after 40 years.
The Pirelli calendar is unique among corporate marketing tools. To be sure, women's bodies in various states of undress are standard attention-getters for all manner of male-oriented products, from beer to screwdrivers. But no com-pany or product has used sexy pictures exactly the way Italian cable- and tiremaker Pirelli has.
Since 1964, Pirelli's calendar, a limited-issue freebie, has succeeded in making cheesecake seem highbrow by employing such top-flight photographers as Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz and the late Richard Avedon. Result: a product that passes for art. Now an $85 book from Rizzoli, The Pirelli Calendar: The Complete Works, 40 Years, sa-lutes what some have called the "world's greatest office status symbol." (The last Pirelli anthology, The Pirelli Cal-endar:1964-2001, The Complete Works, released in 2002 by Rizzoli, is still in print.)
Pirelli doles out "the Cal," as those in the know call it, to a select group of 40,000 special people, including members of the British royal family, the king of Spain, Paul Newman and Bill Gates. Only 1,700 go to the U.S. It's not for sale, except on the auction market. According to Pirelli, in 1975 ten years' worth fetched u20,000 (equal to $41,000 then, or $138,000 today) for charity at Christie's in London. Days after the company releases each year's edition, says Pirelli's global calendar coordinator, Gioacchino del Balzo, single copies pop up on Ebay for as much as $600.
What about brand loyalty? Certainly there are legions of faithful Cal consumers. But does gazing at a topless Heidi Klum holding astrawberry ice cream cone that is dripping onto her voluptuous breast (January 2003, shot by Bruce Weber) inspire anyone to run out and buy Pirelli P-Zero radials? Wags have suggested Pirelli might be better off selling its calendars and giving its tires away.
Pirelli can't quantify the marketing value any more than Goodyear can count the revenue gain from its blimp. Pirelli can, however, add up the editorial pages and television time occasioned by the Cal, and those are huge. Del Balzo says that for every $1 million Pirelli spends producing the calendar, it gets $60 million worth of media coverage. He declines to reveal the calendar's production budget.
So who came up with this brilliant idea? Pirelli's plucky British subsidiary. In fact, it was in 1963, not 1964, that the first Pirelli calendar was produced. But that effort was decidedly down-market (e.g., no-name models), and it was never distributed to customers. The 1964 calendar, shot by British fashion photographer Robert Freeman in Ma-jorca, was more tasteful. The raciest shot (the month was May, for any scholars wishing to research this) showed a model with an unbuttoned denim shirt.
Pirelli likes to say that the Cal reflects society's tastes. 1965 is a tad bolder than 1964; one photo shows a bra peaking out from under a shirt and shorts that are partially unzipped. 1966 is a step more risqué, with a provocative rear view (May, again) featuring see-through panties. 1968 bares the first nipple--but subtly, not the way Janet Jackson would do it. By 1970 the calendar hits its stride, with unabashedly sensual photos shot by Italian magazine and advertis-ing photographer Francis Giacobetti in Paradise Island, Bahamas. See-through cover-ups and barely-there crocheted bikinis over wet, glistening bodies. Un-cheesy cheesecake.
The Cal stopped publishing from 1975 through 1983, as Pirelli struggled with the gas crisis and union prob-lems. But it roared back in 1984 with German-born photographer Uwe Ommer. All of the models are naked and each photo displays the Pirelli tire track pattern, sometimes emblazoned directly onto the models' bodies. February features three perfectly formed bare bottoms on a Bahamas beach, inked with tire tracks and backdropped by a deep blue sea and tropical sky. It's art. Any First Amendment lawyer could get it past the Supreme Court.
Likewise the two calendars shot by American fashion photographer Herb Ritts in 1994 and 1999. Exquisite composition, stunning models including a young Cindy Crawford, and a classic approach that showcases beauty and sensuality makes these two years the classiest of the lot. Except, arguably, the 1995 and 1997 editions, shot by the late, great Richard Avedon. The 2000 Cal, with photos by American magazine photographer Annie Leibovitz, is also nota-ble. Leibovitz shows only two faces in her dozen images; the rest are torsos, legs, breasts, hands. Though the bodies are fit, they are natural rather than voluptuous or silicon-implanted, as though Pirelli were backing away for a moment from too much upholstery.
Pirelli will launch its 2005 edition at a Nov. 18 party in Rio de Janeiro, to which several hundred special peo-ple, including models Naomi Campbell and Marija Vujovic, are invited. The photographer this year is a Frenchman, Patrick Demarchelier, and the location--yet another beach--is in Brazil. The fête is guaranteed to garner the customary media attention, further cementing tires to gorgeous bodies--Pirelli's art of pneumatic conflation.