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Glowing Above the Sun: The Tío Pepe Sign

Dispatch from Madrid | Published : 14/Feb/2008 22:00

The Tío Pepe Sign during the day
One of the most frequently photographed sights in Madrid, that is nevertheless completely ignored in guidebooks to the city, is the Tío Pepe sign in the Puerta del Sol. Given the number of tourists taking pictures in front of the sign (with many opting for the silly trick where they pretend to be “holding” the giant bottle behind them... very creative, guys, but it’s been done before) and consequently, given the sign’s status as the city’s de facto second emblem (at least in tourists’ minds... the first still being the bear, of course), it seems almost unbelievable that no guidebook provides at least a cursory look at the sign’s story. Allow me to take the onerous task upon myself..


For those who don’t know, Tío Pepe is a popular brand of Sherry from the Andalusian town of Jerez de la Frontera.

Some time in the 1930s a man named Luis Pérez Solero came to Jerez and fell in love with both the city and the drink it was producing. He became the promotional chief (“jefe de propaganda”) at González Byass, a major producer of Sherry (jerez).

Back in those days, there were no ad agencies and the epoch of brand management had not really begun yet: it was people like Solero whose at times hilariously ingenious experiments with logos, images, figures and promotional verses actually provided the foundation for the modern-day science of branding. (It was also in those times when first trademark battles were fought: Solero’s original design of the Tío Pepe character had to be changed to accommodate a settlement with a competitor - the agreement stipulated that the figure of Tío not be shown with his hands in the air: that was deemed too similar to a competing drink’s logo).

An advertisement for the drink was installed in the Puerta del Sol all the way back in the 1930s when the country was in the grip of a civil war. During those times, the sign (installed atop Hotel París, the oldest hotel in the city) neighbored a fair deal of political propaganda, including the famous “¡No pasarán!”.

The Tío Pepe sign at night
Tío Pepe’s creator’s sympathies, however, lay with the nationalist side and this probably ensured his creation’s longevity: starting in 1946, Tío was glowing in neon, perched above the “zero kilometer” of the capital and indeed the whole country (i.e., Puerta del Sol). It was then that the sign started to become an attraction in itself.

Amazingly, after Franco’s death, La Puerta’s Tío Pepe evaded not only political reprisals, but also the ensuing “quality of life” legislation which mandated that most other neon signs in Madrid simply be removed. Tío Pepe and another landmark sign, the “Scheweppes” (in Gran Vía) were spared. As a compromise between the city and Tío’s fans, a new illumination schedule was put in place: twelve hours in the winter and nine in the summer.

And so the sign shines on, part-time. If you ever come to the Puerta del Sol at night (I mean, of course you will: it’s pretty safe to assume that you’ll end up there on at least half of your nights out in Madrid!), you will not need any help spotting el Tío.

P.S. EPILOGUE: Luis Pérez Solero died in Madrid in 1968. His descendants (now in third generation) run a prominent Spanish advertising agency, Rasgo.