Originally published 9/22/10
The recent sticker “wars” in Ocean Beach have reminded me of just how much a student of bumper stickers I really am – not that either homeless sticker rates as a bumper sticker per se. But I’ve been watching and enjoying bumper stickers since my college days at UCSD – and I have to say, being a student of them has been a lot of fun. Fun and politics.
One of my favorites was circa 1969. Highlighting the political tension in America back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, this one was quite famous: “America: Love it or leave it.” It had the flag either in the background or on the side.
The great thing about bumper stickers with an edge – they generate responses with an edge. And the response to this super-patriotic one was: “America: Change it or lose it.” I had that one on the back window of my dirty light green ’62 ford station wagon.
So, I’ve watched the unfolding of the great bumper sticker “wars” over the years – not really akin to the ‘cultural war’ but definitely reflecting it … and everything and anything else, from the mundane to the profound – all captured by the bumper.
Watching the evolution of all the different series of bumper stickers through the decades has been well worth the price of the popcorn just in itself. Let’s cruise down bumper sticker memory lane ….
Do you remember all the “it” series? A big one was the evangelical proclamation: “I found it.” I think the “it” series started with the “love it or lose it” series, but I don’t have any empirical evidence. The response soon came: “I never lost it.” No one ever defined what or who “it” was, but it didn’t really matter. President Clinton even asked for clarification, with his famous, “…depends on what “it” means…” . Love it. Lose it. Change it. Found it. Never lost it.
Now, the “it” series had loads of off-shoots. There was a whole plethora of different “it” bumper stickers, and for awhile it seemed as if every trade and industry had their version: I recall one offhand: “Electricians do it in shorts.” The meaning of “it” passed from being America, to religion, to sex. What a transition over the years. Imaginations have just run rampant.
Then there was the “brake” series. It started with a simple innocuous safety message: “I brake at all railroad crossings,” or something very similar. Simple, safety first, practical – sort of. (Warning cars behind you of your braking patterns is good, I guess, but isn’t that what the red brake lights are for? Just asking.)
Anyhow, people just could not leave it alone. They had to go off and answer with their own “brake” statements. The first ones were also safety, like ” I brake at all school crossings. ” But it took off from there …. One of my favorites was “I brake for hallucinations.” Another had to do with oral sex.
Another popular series was more of a window decal, but there was / is the whole “Caution: Baby on board,” set. The knock-offs went wild. One quick response was: “Caution: Mother-in-Law on board.” Another funny one: “Bored on board.” Wasn’t there a “Board on board,” with a silhouette of a surf board?
There was the “honk” series: “I honk …” for whatever. Some say it started with Richard Nixon with the “Honk if you think he’s guilty!” Then there’s “Honk if you’ve never seen an uzi fired from a car window.”
One series I don’t even want to acknowledge is the “I love …” series, as in “I love my wife.” Ugh! So I won’t.
An old favorite was the “never die” series, as in “Old drafters never die, they just lose their perspective.” Then there was – “Old accountants never die, they just lose their balance“, “Old lawyers never die, they just lose their appeal“,”Old doctors never die, they just lose their patients.” And so on.
A recent series that had a quick and funny response was: “My son/daughter is an honor student at (such and such) school.” You’ve seen the responses: “My kid beat up your honor student!”
Ocean Beach has its own series of classic bumper stickers. There’s the “Ocean Beach is an attitude not an address,” the ever popular “US out of OB!” still being sold around town. And the license plate frame: “Ocean Beach – it’s beside the point.”
Here are just some random favorites and funnies:
- “I don’t drink. It dulls the drugs.”
- “I have PMS and a handgun. Any questions?“
- “If Barbi is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?“
- “Beam me up, Scotty.” This was a very popular one. Later versions added “There’s no intelligent life down here” or something like that.
Obviously, bumper stickers have become a means of self-expression, attached to the rear of the vehicle or on its back window for all to see. There are even websites out there dedicated to giving you plenty of bumper sticker sayings.
And today, of course, bumper stickers compete with window decals, religious symbols and their Darwin counters attached to the rear of the vehicle, not the bumper, and with license plate frame sayings. All a way of expressing yourself.
Bumper stickers are said to have originated in 1927 with the introduction of the Model A Ford, as its predecessor Model T had no bumper at all. Bumpers were then added for safety. The first bumper stickers were attached to the bumper with wire and string, and they were made from cardboard and metal. Eventually, silk screen printing on canvas and adhesive paper were invented and the modern bumper sticker came into existence.
All kinds of statements made it on the stickers and the decals. There’s political sayings and apolitical sayings. The favored candidates and electoral propositions clearly are favorites, with sometimes the symbols of the statements outnumbering the statements themselves. There’s sports teams and their symbols. There’s religious signs and symbols, and there’s the counters. Another favorites of mine was on a car along Sunset Cliffs Park a few years back. It said in large letters: “Jesus is coming!” and then below that in smaller letters: “Look busy.”
For decals, we’ve all seen the Christian fish symbol permanently attached to cars. And then the answer: the fish image with “Darwin”. Then there was the counter to that: a fish symbol eating the Darwin. It can go back and forth like that. The peace symbol easily caught on as a decal. Very popular.
Today there are plenty of window decals announcing where you live or the locale you love, or the latest vacation spot.
It didn’t used to be like that. In fact, according to my (limited) research, Ocean Beach actually had the very first community symbol on car windows. The very first “O.B.” s were not the ubiquitous seagull but individual Old English letters spelling out “O.B.” Many surfers had these waaaaay back in the early Sixties. Now of course our “OB” symbols have been copied by just about every community in California and a few from the east.
But Ocean Beach was the very first. It did help that many people called our community by its initials “OB” so it was easier to move into the more traditional OB locale stickers. Even the OB Rag has bumper stickers.
So why do people put bumper stickers on their cars? I don’t believe there’s ever been any studies on the phenomenon, but sometimes you don’t need a study to figure things out.
Bumper stickers, decals, symbols, license plate frames – they all are the means for self-expression, a vehicle to announce your preferences, your likes and dislikes, your candidate, your home town, your general disposition.
The Vietnam war spawned a lot of the early ones, like: “Another mother for peace”, “war is not good for living things.” And in general, anti-establishment political expressions created many stickers. “No nukes” was popular in the Eighties.
My own sense of it, is that in our modern age, where the individual is tremendously dwarfed by larger things, like government, other institutions, the mass mainstream media … bumper stickers and their genre are a way for people to crawl out of the alienation and announce that they are “different” – that they are individuals who do not fit into the mold, who do not fit the pattern, who wish to be seen as outside the little boxes and outside the little lives that we’re all expected to live.
Some people do go to extremes natch, and display a dozen bumper stickers covering their auto back-side. It has been suggested that those drivers with many stickers are actually very egotistical and drive like they own the road. Again, no studies on this. But those who do have a lot of stickers perhaps lessen the boredom of driving a bit for those behind them. I know some people who while driving will speed up just to read the sticker on a vehicle up ahead.
Some people think that there are messages so important that they want the world to see it, to know that someone has that belief. They have sacrificed their often pristine bumper for getting their word out.
Yet, bumper stickers are communication. If people don’t feel their thoughts, beliefs, and expressions are being noticed or believe they are even being suppressed by the larger society and especially by the modern mass media – which seems to control all our expressive space -, then the bumper sticker is one step for their humanity.
The bumper sticker is a little adhesive paper striking out against that anomie, the feeling of being isolated by the modern world, and it’s that small step for mankind and womankind … to be heard… and read.
What are some of your favorites?