Bumper stickers are a common visual phenomena in Edmonton. They convey a myriad of messages ranging from the religious and political to brand logos and personal accomplishments. When an individual displays a bumper sticker on their vehicle they are communicating something about themselves or about the way they want to be perceived by others. We will investigate Edmontonians’ use of bumper stickers as a tool to convey specific opinions, beliefs and values. We will examine this relationship using the concepts of semiotics, panopticism, and the gaze. Also, we will comment upon the irony bumper stickers represent. The bumpers stickers are documented as a collection of photographic images taken around Whyte Avenue and the University of Alberta.
A key idea one has to remember when examining bumper stickers is that they are a tool by which an individual is trying to convey something to others. This message can be used to convey a variety of political and religious views as well as plainly advertising a certain brand or product. However, whether through social affliation or advertising for one’s favorite radio station the individual is saying something about their value system and who they are or want to be seen as. Semiotics is the theory of signs, concerned with the way in which things such as objects and words are a tool to convey meaning (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). In addition semiotics is useful in analyzing the signs of a culture and interpreting meaning within a cultural context (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). We can use Barthes’s model of semiotics to dissect how bumper stickers work in our society. In Barthes’s model the sign consists of two aspects, the signifier - image/sound/word and the signified-meaning (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). For bumper stickers the images or words represented on the sticker are the siginifier and the meaning evoked is the signified. For example the common “Jesus-fish” bumper sticker the signifier is the image of the fish and the word “Jesus” superimposed inside it and the signified is the meanings of Christianity, God, Jesus, and religion. Together these represent the sign - the “Jesus-fish” as modern Christianity. It is important to note that for the bumper sticker to acheive its purpose others have to understand it. A good sign is one that is able to be understood by all users of that sign and the message is succesful in the sense that meaning is conveyed (Oller and Giardetti 1999). In terms of Pierce’s theory of semiotics bumper stickers are most often Symbolic. Symbolic signs are restricted in their ability to convey meaning because they refer to learned systems (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). For example, the lululemon symbol and Mac computer symbol bumper stickers. Someone who is not aware of these companies would not understand their meaning and therefore the message the individual is going for is not acheived. In essence bumper stickers are not simply stickers, they are signs that convey a meaning. They say something about the individual and are placed with a specific purpose. Within an image is a power mechanism and some images are placed at a higher social, cultural, and political value than others. Bumper stickers play an important role within these power mechanisms and societal factors.
While it is clear that we are constantly surrounded by bumper stickers while on the road, it is less clear why individuals choose to display these stickers on the backs of their cars in the first place. One way to look at the image phenomenon of bumper stickers is through the concept of Panopticism. This theory was developed by famous twentieth century French philosopher Michel Foucault who in turn based his work off of the ideas of eighteenth-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In the late 1700s Bentham came up with the design for what he believed to be the perfect prison. The concept was simple; Bentham envisioned a circular building with the prisoners being held in cells along the edge of the circle. In the middle would be a single guard tower that would be separated from the banks of cells by a large open space known as the “annular area” (Schofield 2009). The guard tower would allow the guards to gaze upon all the cells at once but a system of blinds prevented those in the cells from ever seeing into the guard tower, therefore they would never know if a guard was watching them or not (Schofield 2009). Thus, the prisoners would constantly self-regulate their behaviour assuming that they were under the gaze of the guards even if in reality they were not. Foucault expands on Bentham’s idea in his book Discipline and Punish where he sees the self-regulating behaviour of the prisoners in Bentham’s Panopticon as a metaphor for the workings of society. Foucault states that the Panopticon “must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men” (Foucault 1979, 205). He goes further to say that the Panopticon will induce “a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 1979, 201). Foucault elaborates that as members of a society we self-regulate our actions in relation to others, based on our cultural knowledge (Jones 2003). This self-regulation of behaviour is termed “panopticism” and it characterises modern societies, as well as explains why individuals obey laws and established social conventions (Sturken and Cartwright 2009).
The idea that we are constantly under the gaze of others in society is one of the reasons why we put bumper stickers on ours cars. We believe ourselves to be under permanent surveillance even when sitting in traffic or when our cars are parked on the road. This belief that others regularly pay attention to our car while on the road allows bumper stickers to transmit our opinion or parts of our identity. But why do we display these messages as bumper stickers? Why not permanently display the messages we would put on our cars directly on our person? In Edmonton, for example it is common to see bumper stickers like the yellow “Support Our Troops” ribbons or the “Jesus Fish” but less likely to see someone with one of those images on their clothing or tattooed on their body. While we want to individuate ourselves from the masses we do not want to stick out too much. Many of the opinions put forward by bumper stickers regard issues that can arouse unwanted attention or spark heated debate. Topics such as religion, politics, and the war in Afghanistan are often contentious and have the potential to spark confrontation especially if the views expressed are not those held by the majority of society. Even less outrageous bumper stickers such as those that advertise our favourite radio station or sports team could lead to judgement from others. Due to our fear of stepping out of the established social order we self-regulate our behaviour. Bumper stickers become a safe way to express individuality and they are seen as an extension of us. They project snippets of our identity through their messages but they do this in a “safer” manner. There is a dislocation present between the individual and the bumper sticker. The individual is situated in the driver’s seat or inside the vehicle while the message is located on the back of the vehicle. In fact, in most instances the owner of the bumper sticker is only partially visible or not even there, for example in a parking lot. So while having a bumper sticker on your car may seem simple enough, the theories of panopticism and the gaze indicate there is nothing simple about sticking a bumper sticker on your vehicle.
A bumper sticker can be used to identify with a group or popular cause or it can be used to distinguish the person who chooses to display a sticker with a more individual message. There is a particular irony in asserting your individuality by fixing a mass-produced bumper sticker on the back of your car. Bumper stickers are prefabricated and reproducible expressions of opinions, beliefs, and value systems. On one hand the use of bumper stickers limits an individual’s ability to express themselves because opinions, beliefs, and values are not simple but complicated and multifaceted, and often impossible to fit on a small sticker. As such it would seem that in some instances it’s a matter of finding the most accurate bumper sticker as opposed to a bumper sticker that expresses exactly what one wants to say. On the other hand, according to Walter Benjamin reproducibility is “a potentially revolutionary element ... [which] could be a democratizing force ... through the broader circulation of copies” (Benjamin 1936). According to Benjamin, the reproducible image is freed from its status as a revered and ritual artefact and becomes instead a socialist tool. However, despite his interest in making art and media available to the masses Benjamin acknowledges that: “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin 1936). He describes this element as the “aura” an object or image possesses. An object’s aura depends on its uniqueness and the degree of distance between the object and the viewer. According to Benjamin, "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art" (Benjamin 1936). By this standard bumper stickers have essentially no aura. For example the sheer number of support ribbons seen around Edmonton desensitizes the viewer to the messages they are supposed to convey, and even casts doubt on the sincerity of the sentiment behind them. Support ribbons are intended to raise public consciousness but their ubiquity has made them so unremarkable that they go practically unnoticed.
Just as iconic American pop-artist Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych exemplifies the commodification of Marilyn Monroe as a person mass produced for mass consumption, one might say that the mass production and distribution of bumper stickers has developed into the commodification of opinions and values. Religious views, sports rivalries, nationalism, environmentalism and popular culture all act to shape our social consciousness and all find a platform on car bumpers all over Edmonton.
Benjamin, Walter. 1936. "The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction." http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/journal.php
Cartwright, Lisa, and Marita Strurken. 2009. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York City: Oxford University Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York City : Vintage Books.
Giardetti, J. Roland, and John W. Oller Jr. 1999. Images That work: Creating Successful Messages in Marketing and High Stakes Communication. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.
Jones, Pip. 2003. Introducing Social Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.