Friday, April 9, 2010

A Vehicle for Politics: Bumper Stickers and Their Role in The Hegemonic Social Structure


Bumper stickers are a prime way for people to communicate their opinions to the greater population. These opinions can be political, satirical, ideological or otherwise. Addressed in the following blog will be the meanings and importance of bumper stickers in regards to the social structure and the status quo. After analyzing several bumper stickers found on vehicles in Edmonton to determine their connotative meanings, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony will be used to discuss how these bumper stickers contribute to the social structure and the power relations found within it. A common occurrence in the bumper stickers found is then detailed in depth to reveal the true meaning of the support ribbon, namely that of the yellow “Support Our Troops” sticker found in an overwhelming majority of the stickers surveyed. It is clear that hegemony is either directly supported or directly challenged through the use of bumper stickers. This fact is not often as obvious as it seems it should be; viewers and vehicle owner’s alike can often find themselves unaware of the true statement made when they see/employ the use of a bumper sticker.

In the following video, the denotative and connotative meanings of several bumper stickers are examined in order to reveal the true statements made by those that choose to adorn their vehicles. The denotative meaning of something is understood as the literal meaning. It is something that is inherent in the object in-and-of itself (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). The connotative meaning, on the other hand, is one that is subject to social, historical and cultural effects. These meanings are added to the denotative meaning to produce something highly subjective and reliant on the extent of the viewer's lived circumstances (Sturken and Cartwright 2009).

"Copulate Don’t Populate”, “Kill Your Television”, “I Love My Soldier”: these are just a few examples of the vast array of bumper stickers found on vehicles around the city of Edmonton. While it may seem like bumper stickers simply communicate personal beliefs or group affiliation, their underlying meanings offer insight to the structure and dominant ideologies of a society. on vehicles around the city of Edmonton. While it may seem like bumper stickers simply communicate personal beliefs or group affiliation, their underlying meanings offer insight to the structure and dominant ideologies of a society.

After analyzing the connotative meanings of various bumper stickers, it became evident that they generally express beliefs that either uphold or oppose the current social structure and the status quo. To examine how and why certain ideas are taken to be the status quo, the theories of hegemony, put forward by Antonio Gramsci, were explored. 

Gramsci and Hegemony
Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist who used the concept of hegemony to discuss power relations in society (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). These relations are culturally and contextually specific, and can take a variety of different forms (Crehan 2002). Power between different groups is consolidated, creating belief systems that are accepted and regarded as the norm (Sturken and Cartwright 2009). This becomes problematic when the masses accept the ideologies put forth by the ruling class and allow the few members of this class to control society (Gramsci 2001). Generally, the interests of the dominant class do not coincide with the best interests of the masses. Hegemony becomes most evident when the masses support and comply with the structure outline by powerful groups under the pretence that it will also benefit them (Lears 1985).

In a democracy, it is essential for the interests of the powerful to also be expressed by the common person. This ensures that the laws and regulations will continue to benefit those who control the resources and capital. To convince the masses that they should also hold the beliefs of dominant individuals, the ruling class puts forth ideologies that combine the values of the powerful with some of those upheld by the average individual (Crehan 2002). By accepting these belief systems, the lower class is conforming to the rules set out by the powerful. Eventually, these beliefs become the beliefs of the masses and the standards of society, even though the masses may likely suffer the consequences of such a system.

Although many individuals will remain supporters of a political and economic system that causes their oppression, some will fight back. They will express opinions that oppose the accepted status quo of a particular society. They will challenge the messages delivered by the ruling class and attempt to unveil the corruption underlying the social structure. Frequently, those who express anti-establishment beliefs are considered to be deviant and are set apart from the rest of society. While oppositional beliefs are not frequently expressed due to the alienation that results, the insight they offer undermines the established structure of society. In refusing to accept the dominant ideologies put forth by the ruling class, hegemonic forces and the underlying falsity on which society is structured is exposed (Hill 1960).

Hegemony Revealed in Bumper Stickers
It is not always evident how intricately the beliefs of dominant groups have influenced not only our society, but in our individual actions. These influences can be observed in the clothes we wear, the activities we participate in, and the messages we wish to communicate through bumper stickers.

The hegemonic forces at work in our community become evident once individuals express opinions and beliefs that oppose the status quo through mediums such as bumper stickers. Many will see these counter-establishment bumper stickers as bad taste, further affirming the power of the dominant class. However, some will see the merit of the arguments being expressed by these stickers. Flaws in the structure of society become visible, and the beliefs taken to be natural become questionable.

Support ribbons are among the most common bumper stickers found on vehicles in Edmonton. A pink ribbon -designed to raise awareness for breast cancer- does not appear to have any political message embedded in the design or the belief communicated. When a yellow ribbon with the words “Support Our Troops” is placed on a vehicle, an appropriate and expected message is communicated. Canadians should support the men and women who are risking their lives in other countries. These bumper stickers express views held by the majority of individuals, and this is evident in the sheer magnitude in which they are seen around the city. The underlying interests of the powerful are not observed until one reflects on the meaning of bumper stickers with phrases such as “All War is Terrorism”. On the surface, these oppositional statements appear to be confrontational. After further reflection, it is clear that they expose the hegemonic forces at work in our society, of which the masses remain ignorant.

When a bumper sticker blatantly points out that the message communicated is not affiliated with any political group, we realize how deeply and intricately the views of the powerful have replaced the views of the masses. On the “Be Green” bumper sticker, it is written “Not associated with any political or religious organization”. Not only is this statement expressing the belief in environmental conservation, it is emphasizing that this belief and value is independent of any larger organization. It does not support any powerful interests or capitalist endeavor. The owner of this vehicle is forming their own thoughts and opinions that are independent of outside forces, thus refusing to accept the dominant ideologies that have propagated throughout mainstream society (Gramsci 2001).

The values of the powerful are now so interwoven into the views of the masses that the majority of individuals do not think of the implications of a support ribbon. Pink ribbons emphasize the prevalence of breast cancer in society and the importance of finding a cure. However, the task of finding this cure is given to the masses. The common citizen is expected to fundraise and donate so that resources are available for research. The responsibility of the government is removed from this process, a practice that coincides with a capitalist system. Instead of the masses holding the government responsible for the health and wellness of its citizens, they passively accept this position and encourage it. They promote the search for a cure to one another, allowing the government to maintain their separate state. The pink ribbon can therefore be viewed as a symbol of the approval of dominant beliefs that ultimately benefit the interests of the powerful. The underlying influences of the ruling class can also be observed in the yellow “Support Our Troops” ribbon.

The Yellow Ribbon
Of all the bumper stickers observed around the city of Edmonton, the support ribbon undeniably appeared the most frequently. Be it yellow, pink, or red, white and blue, support ribbons can be found in most neighbourhoods across the city and on countless vehicles. They are even sported on many of our public transit vehicles such as busses and ambulances. The support ribbon is a common fixture in North American society and is used as a symbol to show affiliation with many organizations; however, the symbolism surrounding these ribbons has changed numerous times since their creation.

The support ribbons which can be most commonly seen are the yellow – and sometimes camouflage – “Support our Troops” ribbons. These ribbons can be seen as instrumental in the preservation of societal structure and assist in the upholding of views presented by the government along with others in positions of power. Due to the increasing regularity, it is apparent that they are becoming a fixture of our current society and it is important to understand the implications they hold with relation to institutions of power.

The History of the Yellow Ribbon
The yellow support ribbon has a long history within our culture. It has been used for many different reasons across nations; yet, in North America, it is most often associated with the military. Many have conjectured that this association began with a folk song entitled “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”:

“Round her neck she wore a yellow ribbon
She wore it in the winter
And the merry month of May
When I asked her, Why the yellow ribbon?
She said, It’s for my lover who is far far away

The relationship between the yellow ribbon and soldiers was later continued in the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree”, a song written by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown. This song was released toward the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Traditionally, the yellow ribbon displays the presence of a loved one in military service. Wives and mothers tied the ribbons around trees, onto their cars, and pinned them onto their jackets to call their soldiers home. They gained popularity during the Iran Hostage Crisis when people unrelated to the military began sporting the yellow ribbon in an outcry to have the American hostages released.

Up until the Gulf War in the 1990s, the ribbons were a way to ask for the safe return of soldiers from the military conflicts in which they were involved. However, during the Gulf War and in more recent years, the yellow ribbons have been commercialized on a massive scale. Production and purchase numbers have sky-rocketed since the 1990s. They have been endowed with slogans such as “Support our Troops” and their presence around North America has been increasing steadily.

Hegemony and the Yellow Ribbon
The yellow support ribbon began its legacy as a token of military wives. It was a symbol which allowed them to show their devotion to the men they had serving overseas. Nowadays, it is a simple magnetic sticker that anyone and everyone can apply to their car. The message has drastically evolved from a symbol of love, fidelity, and desire for a safe return to a representation of the pull that the powerful maintain over the masses.

War has long favoured the interests of the powerful, be they politicians, church leaders, or the heads of major corporations. During times of war, the powerful make the choice to enter into a conflict and also the choice to leave; however, it is the masses that physically fight the war. In their minds, it is a fight for freedom and love of their country; in the minds of the world leaders, it is often a fight for money, land, or both. Ultimately it is a struggle for power. The masses believe it is a conflict for freedom only because this is what they are told. In order to further their own agendas, the powerful will frame the war in a manner that threatens the rights and liberties of the common man. In this way, they ensure the ultimate support of the majority of the population.

The yellow ribbons, and their increasing popularity since their introduction, are a prime example of the dominance exerted by the upper class during times of war. By mass marketing a symbol in support of the troops, they guarantee that this symbol becomes a sign of conformity. Not supporting the troops is going against mainstream society and deviating from societal norms. While the symbolism of the plain yellow ribbons gained momentum during the Iran Hostage Crisis, the yellow ribbons in conjunction with the slogan “Support our Troops” did not gain recognition until the Gulf War. They sprang up everywhere: on cars, flagpoles, in churches. They were seen as a form of group solidarity, and, more specifically, national solidarity. This was a way for the American people to get involved with the war without directly being part of the armed forces.

Many of those who support the troops via their bumper stickers do not automatically support the war as well. There are bumper stickers which can be quoted as saying “I Support Our Troops. I Do Not Support the War” however these are few and far between. Whether or not the individuals promoting the “Support Our Troops” stickers mean to support the war as well, the government uses the sticker popularity to their advantage. Politicians see with their own eyes that the masses will support the troops regardless of their mission. They are representative of the common person fighting the battle for freedom. This, of course, strikes up sympathy and encouragement from the population. It would be unwarranted to attack the men and women taking bullets for the rest of their country back home.

The powerful in society recognize this unwavering support from the masses. This allows them to twist almost any conflict to appeal to the concerns of the population and generate active support of their interests. Those who sport “Support Our Troops” ribbons may not support the reasons underlying why the troops are fighting the war in the first place, but this is irrelevant if they do not vocalize their concerns. By not making their opinions heard, the government and the large majority of the population see only support for the troops, and little animosity toward the war. Regardless of what is thought by the individual promoting the bumper sticker, if they only have a yellow ribbon with the slogan “Support Our Troops” and nothing showcasing their distaste for the war, then they continue to uphold the interests of the powerful. The powerful see far less resistance against their cause when every fifth car bears a ribbon in support of the troops, as shown by our collection of bumper stickers.

It is important for society to recognize why they must place such a bumper sticker on their car in the first place. The powerful will continue to advance their goals if they see little opposition to their aspirations. Perhaps if individuals were more active in their outcries against the war, they would not need to have a yellow ribbon on their bumper to begin with. It is one thing to support the troops, but another thing entirely when one passively allows violence and war to endorse the interests of those in power.

In conclusion, one can truly understand how our society is structured through the use and analysis of bumper stickers on vehicles in the Edmonton area. Some are displayed with an obvious intent though some, like the yellow support ribbon, convey deeper meanings than most would assume. It is important to understand that the immense popularity of the “Support Our Troops” ribbons is exactly what the powerful wish to see: there is compliance with the troops, and assumedly with that, their actions on foreign soil. There are, however, many stickers that challenge the powerful members or ideals of society. These stickers, though fewer in quantity, are almost more meaningful and impacting than the numerous yellow ribbons moving about the city. All considered, bumper stickers are an often hidden tool which allow an extremely insightful look into the structuring and functioning of any given society.


Crehan, Kate. Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology. Los Angeles: 
University of California Press, 2002.
Finley, Gavin. “The Yellow Ribbon History.” (accessed 
April 1, 2010).
Gramsci, Antonio. "Selections from the Prison Notebooks". Elecbook.
2001. (accessed April 8, 2010).
Hill, Deb J. Hegemony and Education: Gramsci, Post-Marxism, and 
Radical Democracy Revisited. Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2007.
Lears, T. J. Jackson. "The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems  
and Possibilities." American Historical Review 90, no.3 (1985): 567. 
Parsons, Gerald. “How the Yellow Ribbon Became a National Folk  
Symbol.” The National Folk Life Center – The Library of Congress (accessed  
April 1, 2010)
Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: 
An Introduction to Visual Culture. New York: Oxford University 
Press,  2009.

Blog assignment by Amanda Sarrazin, Gina Catena and Shayenne Herder

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