The world according to bumper stickers

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By Hardy Jackson

The other day out on Highway 280 in Birmingham, I was passed by a jacked-up Ford 250, profusely decorated with chrome accessories and a single bumper sticker that read ‘Bad ass girls drive bad ass trucks’.
It went by so fast that I didn’t get a glimpse of her.
But it did get me thinking about bumper stickers.
Although the bumper sticker was invented in the 1940s to advertise a variety of products, I cannot recall seeing any until the election of 1960, when my Daddy, a yellow-dog Democrat, had a cluster of Kennedy stickers. He tried to give them to friends, but in a year when Dixie Democrats were starting to vote (gasp!) Republican, there were few takers. We were left with a stack of them.
When the votes were counted and Kennedy had won, Daddy began getting calls from folks who wanted a sticker and a seat on the bandwagon. Daddy generously acceded to their request, and with the sticker gave them a gentle lecture on Party loyalty.
During the 60s, the bumper sticker became a vehicle for social protest, and they were used by both the left and the right to advance a message that was short, crisp and catchy.
“Make love not war” was popular at one end of the spectrum.
“Beautify America, get a haircut” expressed the attitude at the other.
Printing bumper stickers quickly became big business for counterculture capitalists who undermined the system by becoming part of it. So it was that the medium and the message came together to not only promote causes, but identify the car and driver with what the bumper espoused.
You can learn a lot about people from their bumper stickers. You can learn who they vote for and who they don’t. The other day I saw a Trump sticker with the “T” and the “p” blackened out so that it read “rum, make America great again.”
On the other hand, this could have been a promo for Bacardi .
Then there is the classic Kinky Friedman sticker – “Kinky for Governor, why the hell not?”
And the ever popular “Don’t blame me, I voted for the other guy” – or today one might read “the other girl.”
Some bumper stickers contain inside jokes – “Metaphors be with you” adorns the car of someone who is either an English major, a Star Wars fan, or both. In the world of bumper stickers, you never can be sure.
While politicians must endure the slings and arrows of just about everyone, dogs enjoy universal bumper sticker love. Consider the one that reads “Lord make me the person my dog thinks I am” – assuming of course that your dog thinks of you as a good person and not just the hand that feeds it.
Meanwhile, insult is common currency in the bumper sticker world.
“I had a lot to drink and you still don’t look good.”
Which points to one of the major problems facing the bumper sticker industry – words.
If there are too many, it is hard to read the message. Which led to the ever popular “if you can read this you are following too close.”
And along with insult there is sarcasm, as expressed by my youngest daughter. When she saw a little round bumper sticker that read “26.2” to boast that the driver had run a marathon, she got her own little round bumper sticker that reads “0.0, I don’t run.”
Ambiguity is the meat on which bumper sticker writers feed.
Consider what has to be my all time favorite.
Driving to Atlanta just after the 1996 Olympic Games ended, I stopped at the Georgia welcome station. There on a table was a host of free Olympic stuff, including a bumper sticker that read “NO GRITS, NO GLORY.”
I grabbed one and put it on my pickup.
It stayed there until my son inherited the truck 10 years later.
He immediately stripped it off.
“Why did you do that?” I asked. “ ‘Cause it didn’t make any sense,” he replied.
He was right of course. Nearly every day for those ten years I would look at that bumper sticker and wonder.
Now that it’s gone, I wonder still.
A good bumper sticker will make you think.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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