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Are We Seeing the Tail End of the Bumper Sticker Craze?

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

About two months ago, Laura Laciura did something she’s never done before. She put a bumper sticker on her 1993 Toyota Camry.

“I’m not the type of person who normally does this kind of thing,” said the 37-year-old single mother from Los Angeles, whose sticker declares “Stop California Fluoridation.” “But I feel strongly about this. Very strongly.”

There’s no shortage of issues in the United States. There’s no shortage of bumpers. And there’s no shortage of bumper sticker manufacturers.

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And yet, for the first time in decades, there seems to be a shortage of Americans like Laciura who are willing to paste a bumper sticker on their automobiles. Particularly those with an in-your-face message.

Time was you couldn’t drive around the block without catching an eyeful of the latest rant or witticism attached to the rear end of someone’s car. The messages commented succinctly on politics, religion, the environment, social issues and even how to operate a motor vehicle. Some examples: “If you can’t trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?” “Ted Kennedy’s Car Has Killed More People Than My Gun” and “Keep Honking, I’m Reloading.”

Today, the few stickers that are out there usually inform the motoring public about the alleged intelligence of the driver’s child.

“They’ve really disappeared in the past few years,” said Carol W. Gardner, who wrote “Bumper Sticker Wisdom: America’s Pulpit Above the Tailpipe.” (Beyond Words Publishing Inc., 1995) “I think people just aren’t as interested in the issues right now.”

Gardner realized that the popularity of bumper stickers had waned during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The presidential affair involved two choice topics: politics and sex. But there were few Monica stickers. (Their slogans can’t be reprinted here.) This was especially surprising because only a few years earlier the anti-Clinton sticker “First Hillary, then Gennifer, now us!” had been a brisk seller, said Gardner.

“Bumper stickers used to be much more confrontational,” agreed Mark Gilman, president of Gill Studios in Lenexa, Kan., which prints about 15 million stickers a year and is one of the nation’s largest manufacturers. “It was almost like people were hurling challenges. You don’t see that as much anymore.”

Looking along the Southland’s freeways, it’s pretty obvious that bumper stickers are scarce. Gilman and other bumper sticker merchants, however, say sales have either remained steady or dipped only slightly in recent years.

What’s really changed, they say, is growth. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it wasn’t unusual to see 20% jumps in annual sales, Gilman said.

Like most societal trends, the ups and downs of bumper stickers can be traced to the baby boomers, Gardner contends. Boomers, the enormous demographic block of 80 million Americans born between the end of World War II and 1964, were highly issue-oriented people who believed they could make a difference. And bumper stickers provided a perfect vehicle for their expression, Gardner argues.

However, aging boomers have realized that their intense focus on society’s problems came at a personal price, added Gardner, herself a boomer who lives in Oregon. They found in all their marching and protests that they neglected personal growth, she says. “I think we’ve looked in the mirror as we’ve gotten older and said, ‘Oh my God, I better start being more introspective,’ ” she said.

Others offer more practical reasons for the decline of the bumper sticker--confusion, for one. The way cars are designed now, with bumpers and bodies made of the same materials and in the same colors, some say it’s hard to know where the bumper begins and the car ends.

The Volkswagen Beetle is a good example. Years ago, Beetles, with their detached silver bumpers, seemed to come directly off the sales room floor with pro-environmental stickers already attached. Today’s Beetle bumpers, barely distinguishable from the rest of the car, are usually unadorned.

Also, the use of car leases has risen dramatically over the past decade and, while today’s bumper stickers can be removed easily, many people worry about damage to the bumper or a fine when the lease expires.

And there’s a fear of retribution. While statistics don’t link bumper stickers to acts of vandalism such as keying or broken windows, “I’m sure fear has a lot to do with people not using a bumper sticker,” said Gardner.

Amy LeRoy of Long Beach was the victim of a car keying just one day after putting anti-abortion (“Real Feminists Don’t Kill Babies”) and animal-rights (“People who abuse animals rarely stop there”) stickers on her Toyota Camry.

“Usually people [just] cut me off, roll down the window and give me a condescending look. I usually ignore them,” said the 18-year-old college student.

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Perhaps the simplest argument for a decrease--especially in issue-oriented stickers--was advanced by Gilman: “People are relatively happy. The economy is booming. If you’re not mad about anything, you don’t use bumper stickers.”

And there are other ways to put a message on a car. For years, creationists and evolutionists have debated life’s origins through raised metal symbols attached to car trunks, similar to the metal logos that auto dealers place on cars. Christians display a fish, a secret symbol used by early practitioners of the faith, while evolutionists use the same symbol but add a couple of human feet to it.

Also, decals are now appearing on car windows the same way bumper stickers did decades ago. Decals usually aren’t controversial, instead conveying such information as a person’s city of origin or admiration for a pop icon.

“Bumper stickers on bumpers are a dying breed,” said Janel Eaton, who owns Decalifornia Designs, a decal production company based in Escondido. “But they aren’t going away, they’ve just moved to a different part of the car--the rear window.”

But it may be too early to write the bumper sticker’s obituary.

“We go from one extreme to another in America, and I think you’ll be seeing bumper stickers again,” said Gardner. “Your car is still one of the simplest and best ways to reach a lot of people.”


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