Bumper crop | Vehicle decals convey a growing diversity of political sentiments

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

The lyric “Saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” went through Paul Cone’s mind when he affixed the black-and-white bumper sticker to his 2010 Lexus RX350.

The Lexus is a sweet car – pearl white with leather seats and wood interior trim. Cone, of Milwaukee, has been known to pet, talk to and boast about the vehicle. Now, stuck prominently on its rear bumper is a black sticker with white text that reads, “HOW MANY ARMED PSYCHOPATHS DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A GUN LAW?”

Cone decided to adorn his Lexus with the sticker after the mass shooting of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.

“I had to respond to the idiots in the NRA. I feel that strongly about the need for gun control reform, and I knew she wouldn’t mind,” Cone said as he leaned against the freshly washed SUV, which stood out among the salty, dusty autos in the parking lot of Beans & Barley, 1901 E. North Ave.

Nearby, Melissa Wilson, of Milwaukee, hauled two bags of groceries to a 1998 Saturn S that someday might be held together by its stickers: “What a long strange trip it’s been,” “Was Columbus an illegal alien?” “Occupy Milwaukee,” “Earth First,” “Coexist” and more.

“First car. First bumper stickers,” she said, describing the rite-of-passage that comes with leaving for college and being liberated from borrowing the family cruiser. “I had to drive my dad’s car with the George Bush sticker for years. Hope he needs to borrow mine someday.”

Citizens have any number of ways to express themselves publicly these days, but people use bumper stickers to label themselves and express their identification with causes and communities in a physical way that tweets and posts cannot match.

“It’s a message that has value because it has permanence and a physical presence,” Cone said. “The Internet stuff is forgotten in a day, or an hour.”

The bumper sticker, according to histories on the Web, developed with the debut of the Model A Ford in 1927 – the earlier Model T lacked a bumper. The first bumper stickers were made of aluminum or cardboard and attached to the auto with wire. Forest P. Gill, a silk-screen printer in Kansas City, Mo., is credited with first using adhesive in the 1930s so the motoring messages could become practical and widespread.

On March 1, after the late February snow had fallen from many bumpers, WiG found stickers on about one in every four vehicles parked on the streets of a half-dozen Milwaukee neighborhoods. Around Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the ratio was more like one in three, and those bumpers tended to be more crowded.

A Subaru parked on North Cramer Street on the East Side sported bumper stickers proclaiming: “Ordain Women or Stop Dressing Like Them,” “My comedy channel: Fox News. My news source: Comedy Central,” “Dance Local,” “Love my teachers” and “Recall Walker,” one of the more common stickers on cars in Milwaukee.

A bumper in Avenues West displayed a Mickey Mouse decal, “Wall Drug of South Dakota” and two sets of the Grateful Dead’s Dancing Bears.

In the Historic Third Ward, a minivan with two car seats displayed a collection of badges – “Mom on Board,” “Be good, be green” and “Choose Choice.”

In Walker’s Point, many compacts and coupes, trucks and SUVs, sported blue-and-yellow equal signs and rainbow Pride decals, as well as a variety of Barack Obama re-election stickers, including a crayon-like one on a Ford pickup that said “Dogs against Romney.”

“I did that with Seamus in mind,” the truck’s driver, Shelli Anderson, of Racine, said, referring to the dog that Romney placed in a carrier on top of the family wagon for a 12-hour vacation drive in 1983. 

Anderson makes her own stickers on CafePress.com and changes the slogans and sayings on her truck several times a year.

“My truck is like a big T-shirt,” she said. “I love bumper stickers, always have. I like to have them and read them. I see a really good one, that gets the driver a toot on the horn. I see one I don’t like. So, OK, I’ve flipped the finger to a few.”

The bumper-watcher said she’s noticed fewer stickers in the past decade.

So have sticker manufacturers, used car dealers and car wash attendants, who speculated there are several reasons for a possible decline. For one thing, a lot of auto models no longer have distinctive bumpers; for another, people who lease cars want to avoid penalties for damage caused by stickers. And some motorists have concerns that stickers might provoke vandalism.

Also apparently on the decline are sales of specialty license plates that provide, for a price, an opportunity to drive a message. Surveys show a decline in specialty plate sales in recent years in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Florida, possibly due to the economy, too many plates on the market or drivers deciding they don’t want government interfering with their messages.

Legal battles have erupted in recent years in Oklahoma, North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana over what groups can participate in specialty plate programs and what messages the plates can convey. Indiana lawmakers are considering a bill to limit the number of specialty plates following controversy over a plate for the Indiana Youth Group, a support group for gay teens.

There also have been legal skirmishes over bumper stickers, specifically First Amendment defenses of motorists arrested on obscenity charges.

A Florida woman, for example, was arrested in 1999 for a bumper sticker that stated, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.” The charge against her was dropped, but a Georgia man, James Daniel Cunningham, had to go to his state Supreme Court to appeal his conviction for driving with the bumper sticker “Shit Happens.” The court sided with Cunningham, finding that “the peace of society is not endangered by the profane or lewd word which is not directed at a particular audience.”

A federal court also ruled in favor of truck-driver Wayne Baker, who was stopped by an Alabama public safety officer and ordered to remove offending language on a bumper sticker that said, “How’s My Driving? Call 1-800-2-EAT SHIT!”

Baker scratched out the sticker and then filed a federal lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson, in his decision, said the sticker wasn’t offensive and “is also protected speech under the First Amendment because it has serious literary and political value.  Although surely not a likely candidate for a literary prize, Baker’s bumper sticker has serious literary value as a parody of stickers such as ‘How’s My Driving? Call 1-800-2 ADVISE.’”

Thompson also observed, “For those citizens without wealth or power, a bumper sticker may be one of the few means available to convey a message to a public audience.”

That’s something Wilson thought about when she donated a dollar for the “Occupy Milwaukee” sticker that she added to an older-model car. “Free speech that’s almost free,” she said.