May 6, 2015

Where did all the annoying bumper stickers go?

From the 1990s through the mid-2000s, it wasn't unusual to see a car whose bumper, or even entire back side, was encrusted with stickers of confrontational whining, smug slogans, adolescent humor ("Your mom's hot"), and/or a list of your favorite "edgy" bands. Cars with only a handful of stickers were more common still.

You don't see that anymore, and on the rare occasion that you do, it's clearly a fossil from that earlier era -- "Impeach Bush," "Fukengr├╝ven," "COEXIST," "Mean People Suck," "Phish," etc. What happened?

Flashing to the world all of your annoying opinions and obsessions ("interests"), from behind a wall of anonymity, in a drive-by fashion, trying though often failing to smugly troll strangers -- sounds an awful lot like what the internet was made for. Or rather the web 2.0, when comments sections and social media were born. Only now the technology allowed you to annoy people all over the world -- get more bang for your broadcasting buck.

Although seemingly trivial, the case of bumper stickers illustrates an important point I keep making about technology and social life: technology doesn't make us use it any particular way, and a technology may only become widely adopted because users were already heading in a new social direction.

This is complementary to the standard view that technology colonizes our society, and we are unwillingly affected by it for better or worse. I don't deny that that happens, but it relies on the assumption that the users didn't really want it -- why not ask them first and see how enthusiastic they were to adopt it?

Thus, anonymous comments and social media did not tempt people into blabbing their confrontational, smug, gotcha! slogans to the rest of the world. That attitude and behavior was already highly visible back in the '90s, and even the 2000s -- right up until the web 2.0 opened its doors. Twitter did not set off the battle between SJWs and their counter-trolls; that existing culture war simply shifted arenas, from car bumpers to social media sites.

It also goes to show how little the difference between today and the '80s has to do with technological changes. People didn't have anonymous comments and Twitter back then, but they had bumper stickers and decals -- why didn't they plaster dozens of stickers on their bumper, using them for hostile crusading like they would come to do during the '90s? Quite simply because they didn't have that attitude.

The primary change between the get-along '80s and today is one of attitude, social stance, worldview, and so on, not technology. The '90s is the crucial decade to resolve the matter. Like the '80s, it lacked an internet with anonymous comments and social media sites. Unlike the '80s, people's attitudes had shifted toward cocooning and anxiety or hostility in social situations.

The social mood trumped technological constraints, with people of the '90s making do with bumper stickers for socially anxious confrontations: to wage SJW crusades (or to troll the SJWs in return), to blab their obsessions to the world, and to try out one-liners on an audience that can't respond by rejecting them.


  1. I don't have any statistics, but going from memory, there were just as many cars with bumper stickers in the 70s and 80s as there were in the 90s. The 70s in particular, if I remember correctly.

    "Twitter did not set off the battle between SJWs and their counter-trolls; that existing culture war simply shifted arenas, from car bumpers to social media sites."

    Indeed. The impulse was already there in the 90s (and before that), but the technology wasn't. As soon as the technology came of age, people started using it. The same could be said for movies in theaters vs. Netflix. The impulse to watch filmed entertainment was already there before the internet, but once the internet came online, people simply shifted arenas, from theaters to Netflix.

    I don't think it's an either/or situation. Technology both influences and is influenced by how people behave.

  2. I meant to add, I agree with you that bumper stickers seem to have declined in popularity since the 90s. I think you're right that the internet has something to do with it, but also the change in just what a bumper looks like. They're practically non-existent these days, where bumpers are molded into the design. Sure, bumper stickers aren't just for bumpers, but that's where most people put them. When a bumper isn't distinctly separate from the rest of the car, people are less inclined to slap a sticker on it. I know I am.

    I must say, though. Where I live, bumper stickers can still be seen everywhere. It's conservative up here, with lots of Calvin kneeling before the Cross type stickers, as well anti-Obama and guns rights ("My wife, yes. My dog, maybe. My gun, never!"). Now that I think about it, a pretty sizable percentage of cars I see here have stickers. Back windows are popular spots, especially with trucks. Yeah I don't know, I might have to disagree with you. Again.

  3. As a lad in the 90s, I deliberately sought out arguments with the proprietors of Mr. T vs [X] sites.

  4. dynaflex 33005/7/15, 4:10 PM

    I think the fall-off in bumperstickers is because the SJW' s have won. Here's an analogy: in '07-'08 the aging hippie librarian at our county law library always had Pacifica radio political chat playing softly in the background. After Obama won, the Pacifica broadcasts disappeared. He no longer had the Right to worry about.

  5. Excellent; I'm going to use this argument the next time some SJW moans about how we've become more "polarized" and the discourse has "coarsened" over time.

    The 70's were also a time, according to stereotype, when smug or insulting bumper stickers were prevalent. "Forrest Gump" makes this point when Forrest unwittingly becomes the progenitor of two well-known bumper-stickers/symbols of that era: "Shit Happens" and the smiley-face logo.

    Bumper stickers were useful to express smarmy opinions because property laws often blocked billboards or lawn signs from such crassness, and newspapers did not carry such slogans even in ads. The only way to annoy your opponent with such crassness in their communities was a drive through in your car--yelling out the window at times, blasting your radio songs, waving signs, and having your VW covered in sniggering, rude comments. "Freakin' out squares," man.

    This might explain trolling of SJWs of non-SJW sites---a fervent desire to upset their political enemies with smarmy, stupid, but catchy drive-by slogans that if you had an SJW-type amygdala, you'd get really upset by. As most of the anti-SJW crowd is K-selected, the annoyance is muted. Contrast this to how SJW-led sites will immediately ban-and-delete any anti-SJW posts, even if not smarmy or sniggering or cutesy or nasty. If you ever do hit them with a strong meme-creating phrase that is snarky and witty that attacks their argument, they will FLIP OUT. Annymous Conservative really is onto something.

  6. OT: "Miley Cyrus May Have Come Out As Genderqueer And Bisexual"

  7. "Miley Cyrus May Have Come Out As Genderqueer And Bisexual"

    She did that awhile ago when she started sporting that gay-whoosh hairdo.

  8. The exception remains the popularity of "my child is an honor student" or " I am / my child goes to this university," which is part of the status striving inequality cycle. This is the best way to allow those helicopter parents unable to own a more luxurious car to still brag to strangers as they drive their child from place to place.

  9. Twenty-plus years ago I observed that anybody who has more than one bumper sticker on the same theme is either an asshole or a very boring person.

    The only bumper stickers I owned: 1992, my early twenties, I had a "Baby in Trunk" sticker on my cheap car in response to the then-ubiquitous "Baby on Board" stickers. But after a week or so the novelty wore off and I thought it's a pretty stupid sticker, so I peeled it off. Around the same time I had a Redskins sticker, having been a fan through the 80s and 90s.

    No stickers since then. I own a nice SUV and a trusty old clunker, and here is my dilemma, if I wanted to have a rightie sticker: on the nice car, I'd risk vandalism. On the clunker, I'd give my message bad social proof.

    Here is a sticker idea -- I would put that on either one of my cars: "SEPARATE", written in the "coexist" style.

  10. "SEGREGATE" would send them into an even bigger meltdown.

  11. Here's a good one:

  12. "No stickers since then. I own a nice SUV and a trusty old clunker, and here is my dilemma, if I wanted to have a rightie sticker: on the nice car, I'd risk vandalism."

    You should move to where I live, then, because it's lousy with conservative bumper stickers around here. True story: the first year we moved here I had Gore sticker still on my car from the 2000 election (the only sticker on that car), and I went to Home Depot. When I came out, somebody had stuck a Bush/Cheney sticker on my fucking windshield. Classy.

    Anyway, seriously, bumper stickers galore up here. NRA, Calvin either kneeling before or peeing on something, TONS of anti-Obama stickers, cowboy-related stuff, and lots and lots of logos for one product or another. Bumper stickers cross party boundaries, for sure.

  13. "Here's a good one:"

    Jim Goad, wow. Haven't heard that name in years. He published the infamous Answer Me 'zine back in the early 90s, same era a friend and I were publishing a fairly popular 'zine. Hung out with Jim a couple times. Unbelievably intelligent guy. Also, seriously screwed up. Still, the dude could write.

  14. I do see a fair amount of conservative bumper stickers where I live too. Chevy and Ford battling it out(more window decals though) and other signs. Combine that with the license plates which tell you who the driver is rooting for and I can't say that I agree with your premise. I still think technological progress changes society more then the other way around. I actually think the internet is a fad to a point and eventually people will stop spending so much time online. It takes a while to get over this new drug habit so that is why the last 15 years have been so weird. Love your blog, know you disagree but keep up the interesting work.

  15. People just act like poser doofuses in high striving/cocooning periods. Nobody cares about your politics or what your kids are doing.

    The redneck/right wing posturing is just as lame as the liberal SWPL posturing. How pathetic are these "real" men when they desperately advertise their class and stance?

    Go look at real images and conversations with ordinary people in the 60's, 70's, and 80's. For the most part, people looked and acted unpretentiously. You're not keeping some proud tradition alive by festooning your house or car or body with "redneck" imagery. When both urban sophisticates and heartland folk actually had lives before the 90's, they did more things of practical/aesthetic/intellectual value. They didn't obnoxiously "prove" how erudite or blue collar they were with vapid and trendy crap.

    It occurs to me that when people actually have more in depth conversations with others and also do more fun activities with others, it's understood that eventually people will get to know you. So why bother brashly signalling things to others? Now that we're so disconnected from each other, we're insecure about whether people will know who we really are. So I'll wear a dumb T shirt or slap on a bumper sticker so people don't mistake me for a hipster wuss who cares about things besides cars.

  16. I occasionally see cars festooned with stickers advertising various universities. Low-class behaviour.

  17. One that I recently started seeing is the “One Human Family” bumper sticker. It seems to have exceeded the “Coexist” one in popularity.


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