The Caravan of Money

Adults were hauled folding chairs and picnic coolboxes, children carried hats, bags and small packets of sweets. They were moving in the opposite direction to me and this was worrying. I’d planned on watching the Tour de France and many were leaving. Surely I of all people hadn’t got the time wrong? Perhaps the racing was so furious it was over an hour ahead of schedule? No, the exodus turned out to be people going home after the Tour de France’s publicity caravan had been through, they’d got their loot of freebies and didn’t want to stay for the race.

Here’s a look at the business of the Tour de France’s publicity caravan, the show you never see on TV but an astonishing marketing success.

The Tour de France’s publicity caravan precedes the race and is the show you don’t see on TV. It began in 1930 when Tour organiser Henri Desgrange found trade teams plotting – plus ça change – and decided to call their bluff and invite national teams to participate instead, using bicycles provided by the race. Only this meant an extra cost and he came up with the caravan, letting companies drive vehicles ahead of the race with branded vehicles equipped with loudhailers to broadcast slogans to the attendant crowds. Today it sees elaborately designed vehicles and millions of goodies are given away during July.

Sausage fest: saucisson manufacturer Cochonou will throw 460,000 taster packets – one for every seven metres of the entire route – into the crowds from its seven Citroen 2CV cars, it screams French rustic charm only the parent company is Shuanghui of Luohe, China. A first for this year is an electric vehicle being Fruit Shoot, a brand of British firm Britvic. In total 14 million objects get chucked at the crowds

It’s an absurd experience, as if Times Square or Shinjoku was being wheeled through rural France. This is blatant marketing on a very unsophisticated level yet the crowds love it, it’s dynamic, noisy and at times raucous. The French rugby team could talent scout as people dive into ditches and elbow each other out of the way just for a keyring, biro or hat. In age of channel-hopping and adblocking the caravan reaches parts of France that other ad campaigns cannot and once it arrives it then has people scrapping for free samples. If sales staff handed out sachets of detergent in a market square most people would be indifferent or even suspicious of the marketing. Estimates put the roadside crowds at 12 million of which 10 million are French, or a sixth of the country’s population.

20km long: It’s a tight show with its own commissaire. In a feature in L’Equipe on 2 July Aurélien Janssens explains he’s got GPS tracking on vehicles so he knows where the caravan is. When viewed from the sky it spans 13km but can extend to 20km during the course of a stage and normally it takes 35 minutes to pass. The sheer size means the Tour has to avoid some roads, the caravan can detour around a short pavé section without problem but you wonder if some enchanting mountain passes are excluded from the Tour route because they’re too narrow or steep.

Money maker: The costs vary from €15,000 if you just want to drive one car with your own decals up to about a million Euros according to Philippe Lavergne of Haribo, again in L’Equipe (owned by Amaury family, like the Tour). This includes the entry fee payment to ASO of around €250,000, the cost of the fleet of vehicles, hiring 20 people, 1.5 million sachets and also related in-store marketing campaigns with Haribo sellers, “It’s a substantial budget but the Tour remains the event that attracts the most people and lets us reach our target of families.” Cochonou and Senseo, a brand of coffee belonging US group Mondelēz, both reported a 20% increase in sales during July last year.

Big brands: there are some small cars in the caravan but you might have noted names of blue chip corporates above and we can add names like Nestlé, Škoda, Bostik, LCL, McCain and Bic among others. All are happy to sponsor the Tour de France in order to reach its audience but, for now at least, they won’t go near pro team sponsorship. It’s seen as too risky given the doping scandal-prone past.

Tour de France publicity caravan

Which bring us to the exodus of day trippers. The sun was beating down and they’d got their of freebies and it was time to go home. The race itself just didn’t interest them, here was a chance to get a few free pens, sweets, hats and washing powder. It’s not just anecdotal, there’s data too with surveys by TNS Sofres, a marketing agency, showing the prime motivation behind the decision to go and watch the Tour de France is the publicity caravan itself. Forget illusions of cheering on a local hero or the deity of the maillot jaune, believe the report and the largest segment of the crowd is there for a Bic pen and a Skoda hat and will even go home before the race arrives. It’s like walking out of the Superbowl final once you’ve seen the half-time show. Disturbing for those of us who want to think the race is everything? Yes but it brings in the crowds. It’s not new, in the 1960s L’Equipe wrote that after the joy, music and cheers of the caravan had sped across the countryside, the race itself was the “tail of a comet”. As marketing stunts go, there’s nothing like it.

48 thoughts on “The Caravan of Money”

  1. I have been to the tour 3 times and I can not say I have ever seen anyone leave after the caravan goes through. I go to the mountain stages so I guess they never surveyed people up the mountains only those on the flats in the towns.

    I do agree the caravan brings out the worst in people. Yes I have seen grown men bump kids out of the way just to get the Hairdos. I have also seen grown men giving hairdos to little kids.

  2. It’s some spectacle (very blatant marketing) and you really nail the feelings I had in Dieppe yesterday with the tail of the comet. Mind you, it was a fantastic day out with plenty of cycling on closed roads (with cheering crowds for boosts on the climbs).
    Too bad Bic were only throwing key rings, rather than pens.

  3. When I go watch a cycling race roadside I tend to go late, in order NOT to be exposed to this folly. But then again I’m a prone user of adblockers and never watch live television for the same reasons. In a way this commercialism is the raison d’être of le tour wasn’t the whole thing originally launched as a marketing stunt for a journal?

  4. I went to see a few stages of the Tour in 2013, and watched stage 16 in Veynes (at the intermediate sprint). Plenty of locals leaving after the caravan went through. Everyone at the intermediate sprint was given a free t-shirt, hat and massive foam hand (in addition to the caravan goodies)

    Best place to pick up freebies…near the end of the ITT in Chorges…at the 400m to go board, and little competition. I think I mainly lived off freebie Madelaines that day!

  5. Brilliant article: had me chortling at the absurdity of it all – toss any old tat at people for free and they’ll wrestle each other for it.

  6. Tim Moore in his book “French Revolutions” describes the publicity caravan in hilarious fashion. It is a very funny book anyway, but that passage was one of the (many) highlights.

    Incidentally, I have only ever seen the Tour on UK soil, and have never seen this happen here ?
    It doesn’t seem a very British thing, somehow.

    Does the caravan follow the Tour in to the non-French countries ?

    • It does. Last year, among other tat, I got some Yorkshire The (can’t apply the accent, sorry), a pen from the Gendarmerie de France and a polka dotted cap, which I gave to my daughter who lost it within hours. I also caught a British Cycling snap bracelet hurled from a car passing at 35mph, one handed, before it wounded my offspring. We took the tea to a relative in France a week or two later and saw the entire caravan heading north on the autoroute from Perigueux to Paris for the last day., a truly surreal yet very very French sight. The three horses on the Paris Mutuel pick ups were impressive, but my son, then four, was most taken with the giant Fruit Shoot bottles. (They don’t hurl the drinks at the crowds, at least not in England)

    • Yorkshire got the caravan. Plenty of excitement, if only because it meant that the hours of waiting would soon be over. By then the roads are shut so there’s nothing to do but sit still for the previous half hour or more. I went toatlly mad when the red polka dot cap car went past, and was delighted to be rewarded with one – shows that screaming and shouting works! I’m not sure that the whole caravan bothered with Yorkshire, mind – maybe some brands not selling in the UK gave it a miss. But not a soul left between the caravan and the race leader.

      • It’s adjusted for the local market. For example no Cochonou saucisson in Utrecht as it’s not sold there. The same brand won’t be in Brittany this weekend either as they fear farmers might protest (long story to do with food production).

  7. I watched the stage to Zeeland from the roadside and my wife and kids joined for seeing the caravan. I don’t think the sausages made it to NL or I forgot about them, they definitely didn’t throw any at us. But certainly the caravan does go outside France. I was a bit disappointed with the size of the caravan and the number of things actually given away after reading about it so many times, but the kids were happy – I’m not complaining.

    We did wonder about the guy in the green van (?Teisseire?), who sits on a swing on a moving vehicle. How does he not get sick? And is it the same people 3 weeks long sitting on the vehicles, or do they recruit temps locally for the day? I’m fairly certain I’d go mad if I had to sit in a car hearing the same 20s ad jingle for hours on end every day for 3 weeks.

    • I would guess that they’re temps on the minimum wage.
      However, rather heartening to find out that France pays the highest minimum wage in the EU.
      You live and learn on this blog.

  8. What I find most interesting about the publicity caravan, is that the UCI allows it.

    Rule 2.2.036 prohibits the throwing of anything from caravan vehicles.

    This is a safety measure, largely to protect spectators from running into the street chasing an object, potentially causing injury or worse.

    Perhaps they know where Le Tour’s bread is buttered, or they don’t consider the publicity caravan part of the race from a UCI perspective.

  9. As a non-commercial aside, I was up on L’Alpe d’Huez a number of years ago and after the caravan came through, a large bunch of differently-abled cyclists climbed past- women and men with one leg riding, etc.
    It was a very deep counterpoint to the circus of the caravan and the crowd gave a genuinely heartfelt, sustained ovation for these remarkable athletes.

  10. I was at the Grand depart In Utrecht. I would say the caravan is smaller and it didn’t take that long to pass.
    The only cap I caught I gave to a little boy.
    I don’t need anything from the caravan

    • Giro d’Italia has a “Carovana Rosa” a smaller version of LeTour’s commercial efforts. Just like in France it doesn’t run in places where there might be access issues. Back-in-the-day when I worked for an outfit offering “race-chasing” TdF vacations, I was a few times caught up in the Tour’s caravan with clients inside the van with me. One time a guy started tossing pencils to the crowd (where he got these I have no idea) and another told me being stuck in this parade (before the police kicked us out, though we detoured around and got back in later) was the highlight of his vacation! I continue to be amazed at the interest shown by the crowds in grabbing what is mostly junk…though I was happy to be hit (lightly) in the head one day by a plastic bag containing a cold, mini-can of Coca-Cola. Had a few of those on a shelf as souvenirs for many years.

  11. Inrng, I initially took this article to be a sort of half-hearted humorous look at the Tour but, having had the time to do a little background reading on the subject today, I am surprised to discover how vital a role the publicity caravan actually plays in the Tour’s success.
    Its presence “carries the great values of the Tour (proximity, generosity, festivity)” and is a “unique direct marketing tool expected by its target : the publicity caravan is the second reason for motivation of the public”.
    Many thanks for a most interesting prompter.

  12. Inrng, I initially took this article to be a sort of half-humorous look at the Tour but, having had the time to do a little background reading on the subject today, I am surprised to discover how vital a role the publicity caravan actually plays in the Tour’s success.
    Its presence “carries the great values of the Tour (proximity, generosity, festivity)” and is a “unique direct marketing tool expected by its target : the publicity caravan is the second reason for motivation of the public”.
    Many thanks for a most interesting prompter.

  13. But the caravan is so, well, shite, when for a giant international event i’s actually so disappointing. It ‘could’ be so much better. It’s even more disappointing that people would be more bothered about grabbing shite merchandise than seeing the race.

  14. I quite liked this post. For sure, the caravan, as we’d say in French, “c’est un peu con et (très) ringard” (I don’t if these qualifiers have a translation into English). But that’s also it’s charm. It’s childish, familiar, unsophisticated. It’s the summer, life is beautiful, life is easy, and you don’t ask for anything more than a little ceremonial fun in the open air.

  15. Somewhat of a non sequi tour.
    I came across this in a novel
    I was reading today.
    “I had coffee out on the terrasse with the team manager of one of the big bicycle manufacturers. He said it had been a very pleasant race, ….. The dust had been bad, but in Spain the roads were better than in France. Bicycle road-racing was the only sport in the world, he said. Had I ever followed the Tour de France? …… The Tour de France was the greatest sporting event in the world.”

    From: Ernest Hemingway. “The Sun Also Rises.” 1926.

      • Hemingway got into cycling in France after one of his friends invited him to a race saying it is a sport which you don’t need to bet on to feel the excitement. I think it is in the ‘A Moveable Feast’.

  16. This publicity caravan means so much more when your actually there at the roadside. Yes it could be better, but it whips up the crowd and grows the excitement of what’s to come. And who doesn’t like a free hat.

  17. This great article and the reactions on the comment make me think about the contrast between the humble origins of the sport and how it has been adopted by different demographics and geographies over time. It was rooted in poor environments, easily found in mediterranean countries. Young men took up racing to get away from minimum wage salaries. Humble people in the countryside could enjoy a free show every year or so with intriguing freebies. Nowadays, especially in “new world” countries like USA and Australia, it’s an expensive sport, “the new golf”, taken by mamils and Rapha-wearing cafe-stopping riders that admire the feats and fashion of the humble champions of old. It’s fascinating!
    Anyway, you have alluded to this a few times before, but it would be interesting to hear more about your perspective and other commentators as well.

  18. Both my sons came with me to Mont Noir last year, the only chance we had to see the caravane dring the trip. At first they were a bit blase but after half a dozen youngsters had nipped between them to grab freebies thrown out, they were scrabbling around with the best of them. They said it was for the sons of the eldest but really they both got carried away. My grandsons had a good haul brought back for them, we ate the edibles. Great day.

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