Pirelli Calendar, the hype and the reality.

VAG, (above) gives you the official corporate version of Pirelli's calendar exploits. I want to give you a different point of view. Knowing how E2 loves to hear the dirt, I want to give you the story behind the Pirelli calendar story.

One of the very few 'perks' of a life spent in a cubicle farm is that every year for the last 12 years or so, I have been given a Pirelli calendar. Not only that, but I also was sent an invitation to the official launch of the calendar, around the end of October each year. Not only that, but I usually ended up being sat on one of the 'special' tables which are hosted by one of the models. I'll give you the dirt on that a bit later.

At least, I was offered all this annually, until one day I idly asked how much they budget for each guest at the launch.

$1500. For each of about 500 guests. You do the math. Add on the fees for the models, and the photographer and you have a budget stretching well into the multi-millions.

As soon as I heard how much they were spending, I told them not to not to invite me any more, and I have not been to the last two launches. They still send me a calendar though, if I remember to ask for one. I think the 2002 calendar is sitting around the office somewhere. I still have not got around to asking for the 2003 version. I don't think I shall.

One thing Pirelli is good at is marketing. Although the tire industry as a whole is pretty crap at marketing their products, Pirelli stands out as a beacon of skill in a very mediocre field. Back in the 1960s their UK arm introduced the idea of a calendar for their tire stores.

There is a long and ignoble tradition of automotive suppliers printing calendars to go in the predominantly male (as it was) world of automotive service and repair establishments. The basic genre is the 'girlie' calender. I don't mean girlie in the sense of a chick flick or a girly night out, but to put it crudely, a calendar highlighting a series of tits 'n' bums pictures. Page 3 by the month, I suppose you might say.

In the early years (I know this, because one year Pirelli gave all its guests a book on the history of the thing), the calendar was no big deal, except that it was a bit more sophisticated than the competing calendars, which is not saying much. At the time, Pirelli UK had a wily old director of marketing and PR called Tom Northey. Not only did he know his market--the tire dealers--very well, but he also had a keen eye for publicity and marketing.

He started placing ads in the personal columns of Private Eye, for back issues of the Pirelli calendar. He bought back the old copies from the people to whom he had given them in the first place. I know this, because he told me so. Old Pirelli calendars have no value, except what Tom was prepared to pay for them.

At this point, I have to say something about tire dealers. In general, they are the most boorish, misogynistic, chauvinist bunch of low-lifes I have ever met. If you are a tire dealer, perhaps you will object to this description, but the fact is, I have met countless numbers of tire dealers and this is the impression they have left me with. If you are a tire dealer and you think my description is over-harsh, then please, tell me so and I would be only too willing to re-think my opinion. However, I would ask you to read on to see some of the reasons for my poor impression of those who sell tires for a living.

As I said, one thing that Pirelli is good at is marketing. I also told you how much they budget for the evening launch. Let me tell you where that money goes. But before I do, remember that Pirelli is a tire company: They have nowhere near as much money to spend on marketing as do the pharmaceutical companies or the car makers, or software publishers. Nevertheless, Pirelli does it well enough. They fly their guests into London (or wherever the event is being held) club class. They provide an hotel for the night, always one of the top hotels in the city. They lay on transport to and from the venue. The venue is, of course, appropriately prestigious. For a number of years in London it was the main entrance hall of the Natural History museum. The one with the brontosaurus skeleton. Another year it was the London home of the Spencer family (you know, the ones who hated Princess Diana). Other years they have run it at the Hurlingham Club in Chelsea.

They offer pre-dinner champagne, followed by a multi-course dinner with unlimited wine from top vineyards. That is followed by brandy, port or any other post-prandials you may request. The food, of course is excellent. They do not skimp. At some point after the main course there is a speech by a celebrity. For many years Nigel Havers offered the right blend of Englishness and respectability to the tawdry presentation of the calendar.

He makes a few jokes and introduces the calendar, and the photographer and some of the models. There are more speeches, there is a video showing how the calendar was made, yada yada yada. Then we get the models saying something about how wonderful it was to work on the Pirelli calendar.

Up until about five years ago, part of the deal was that the models would dine with the ordinary guests, so that on a table of 10, nine chairs would be occupied by middle-aged tire dealers who have drunk rather too much and the other by an internationally-renowned model who has been paid a very large sum of money to be photographed with her kit off.

Very quickly, Pirelli learned to assign the models to some 'special' tables where the guests could be relied upon to behave themselves. Unlike many of the tire dealers, I am able, even when drunk, to keep my hands off the err, talents of a supermodel, so I seemed to end up on these tables. And yes, I can tell you from direct experience, that all your pre-conceptions of the models are true. Very slick, very professional, but well, not the best company at dinner, I'm afraid.

After deciding to keep the models safe from wandering hands, Pirelli decided one year to have an open question session. This too, fell victim to the err, talents of the tire dealers. After three or four standard, planted questions, a real tire dealer got one in, "Where do you buy your underwear?" That put an end to the open question session for good.

The calendars themselves.

Well, they're OK, I suppose. Not as arty as the hype would have you believe, and a few of them are complete tat. It has to be said, for example, that the 2001 calendar is as close to expensive soft porn as they have come in recent years. Over-sharp, harsh images of old men in suits and leather chairs with their well-endowed female servants in skimpy outfits bending over to serve drinks. Oh Puh-leeese!

On the positive side, I remember the 1989 edition by Joyce Tennyson. It concentrated on star signs, but was presented as huge Polaroid images, which used a special process to make them almost black and white. It concentrated on the composition, colour and imagery, with references to the female form, rather than just the tits and bums. And the 1999 edition by Herb Ritts tracked the images of women through the last century. Really beautiful images. Probably the best of recent years was Annie Leibovitz with stunning, anonymised studies of the female body in 2000. But on the whole, they are basically just girlie calendars, aimed at boorish, misogynistic male tire dealers.

So there you have it, the Pirelli calendar is a girlie calendar, used as a marketing tool by a slick Italian corporate marketing department. They use it to promote their image and to help sell the Pirelli brand, which incidentally, generates around half its revenue from cables; not just tires.