The Rise of Bumper Sticker Culture

If you’ve kept your eyes on the road lately, chances are you’ve seen a car adorned with a bumper sticker. Some drivers use one, but some use 10. Many students use stickers to support their college, while parents use them to show that their kids have good grades. Regardless, everyone with a bumper sticker has something to say.

This form of message-spreading isn’t without precedent. It’s arguably not that much different from putting a pin on a backpack or wearing a graphic tee; you’re spreading a message non-vocally out in public. But when on the road, people are generally in a different mindset. They are often rushed and low on patience. As such, bumper stickers with abrasive messages like “If my smoking bothers you… don’t breathe” have the potential to be very irritating.

Is there an unspoken bond between people who express the same message on their bumper stickers? Or are they intended to be a point of contention? These questions are becoming more prevalent now that bumper sticker culture has overtaken the country. Many messages and symbols that originated on bumper stickers have become national icons, such as the “stick figure family,” or regional catchphrases, like the grassroots slogan “Keep Portland Weird.”

Bumper stickers aren’t only a cultural fixture in the United States. Recently, countries like Russia have also adopted them. The multinational embracing of bumper stickers shows how easy this is to do, and how people want to spread their opinions–but don’t always have the desire to speak them.

This cultural osmosis seen in bumper-sticker patterns doesn’t only originate from the United States. Another example of the most popular forms of bumper sticker is the oval with bold, black initials representing a place such as a state or ski lodge. Back in the 20th century, it was a standard in Europe to label the vehicle’s country of registration, such as “GB” for Great Britain or “F” for France. In the 1980s, it became trendy to use these stickers in the US to “look European.” The trend has become ubiquitous and continues to this day.

American presidential elections have popularized the idea of campaign-oriented stickers in the modern age. If you keep an eye out, it’s not hard to find cars that still use Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin stickers. Since the 2008 election, bumper stickers for seasonal elections have been some of the best sellers. With the 2016 election campaign currently in full swing, drivers are also eager to show their support for their favorite candidate. Outspoken political figures like Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders all sell official bumper stickers on their websites. Many of these candidates are even giving their bumper stickers out for free.

Political stickers are especially common in progressive cities like New York. Beyond just names of politicians, movements for social change form their own genre of bumper stickers. Drivers express goals like tax reform or environmental conservation not to mention campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter.

Other parts of the state, though, may express a more conservative lean.

Anthony Dahl, an upstate New York resident, has encountered many political bumper stickers and thus developed a strong opinion on them.

“To me, seeing a bumper sticker that says ‘guns don’t kill people texting and driving does’ is annoying off the bat because it’s using one political message to remind you of something that I think most people already know,” he says. “But directly next to it the bumper sticker [that] says ‘keep honking, I’m reloading’ is essentially saying ‘I have a short temper and if you upset me I’m going to use my gun to shoot you because I own a gun.’”

Of course, less serious stickers are also prevalent on the roads. Spreading a message to bring a little levity to others on the road is a noble pursuit. The nature of the stickers can additionally be utilized as a form of exposure for advertising businesses, as this mobile means of visual communication reaches out to consumers who otherwise would not know about the product they market.

Between all these different messages to spread–meaningful, angry, humorous, profitable–American highways are louder than ever.

“It doesn’t necessarily affect my life,” Dahl says, “but [bumper stickers are a] reminder that people can’t go any period of time without having some sort of politically charged message thrown in their face.”

Featured photo courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker.