Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bumper Sticker Politics

So I had a long and kind of tedious commute this evening. But I was having a great time, listening to the radio and rocking out to everything from Carly Simon ("You're so Vain") to The Beastie Boys ("Intergalactic"). Oh, and before I get started, I have something in the odd-observation category to point out. Despite living in Seattle, I haven't heard Pearl Jam played on the radio for months. All of a sudden I hear one song played ("Daughter"). I rock out for a while, get bored, change channels. Right into the beginning of "Even Flow." Couple minutes later, on yet a third channel, I hear "Jeremy." What's up with that? I've noticed it before -- you don't hear a band for a while and then suddenly, in the span of twenty minutes, you hear it on three different stations.

Anyone who happens to work in radio and who reads this -- let me know if stations listen to each other or communicate or something. "Hey, KZOK has broke out the Pearl Jam...let's dust 10 off ourselves!"

But alright, back to the politics. To entertain myself, I thought I'd celebrate the eve of the veepsidential debate with a quick poll: bumper sticker counting. It ended up 8 for Obama 2 for McCain (plus one additional giant flag for Obama but it wasn't technically a bumper sticker and so I didn't count it). Now these numbers should hardly be surprising, being as Washington is about as much of a blue-state as you can get. And the population of Seattle is pretty think with that liberal intellectual/professional demographic that I'll freely admit is part of Obama's core support group and I drove by a PCC Natural Market (one of the Obamas was exiting their parking lot) that probably has a certain predictable voting clump among its patrons. That said, however, I happen to know at least one of those Obama cars belonged to a tile setter, so don't get too focused on my self-selected sample.

Now I was paying really close attention to the cars I was passing and being passed by so that I didn't double count any bumper stickers, to either candidate's advantage (because I'm sending my results off to CNN now -- read about it in the morning, I tell you!). I passed one McCain car (a Buick driven by an old white guy who looked, I kid you not, shockingly like McCain himself) twice, and one Obama car about a half dozen times. Its that thing you get on the freeway in moderate traffic, going back and forth as lanes gain or lose advantage. Now this Obama car that I passed and re-passed had another bumper sticker on it that said, in big Republican party letters "McCain" and then had some smaller letters below that would probably have said "Palin" or something. So on one of our close encounters I looked more closely (and got lucky with a gap in the traffic) and saw something that looked more like this:


This particular version was a little better, or at least more current, had the blue font and looked considerably more official at first pass. Now when I first passed this car I was kind of excited. A car that supports both candidates? Multiple personality disorder? Two owners with different politics? Someone who changed their mind? I always love it when I see a bumper sticker collection that doesn't quite fit up against the simple and obvious types we expect to see: "Hey, you're a Marine and support Green Peace!" or such.

But it wasn't. Instead it was an example of what I consider the very (or at least mildly) irritating trend of the sarcastic bumper sticker. The satirization of a sticker or slogan of your opponent. I've been seeing these more and more over the past few years, roughly through Bush's second term. I usually see them heading in a liberal direction, though that could be as much a product of my local (and the fact that it is easer to satirize the in-power group) as is the 4:1 Obama:McCain ratio I observed.

Now the "third term" slogan is pretty clever, regardless if you agree with it or not. But does it translate to the fast moving pattern recognition world of the freeway? I think not.

Bumper stickers are as much about peer pressure as anything. You are making a statement, to those you know, park near, happen to drive around, or who look at your car in a parking lot, that you believe in (or oppose) a certain person or cause. They work (and I admit this opinion has no basis in science or anything, not any more than believing that the dinosaurs were still hanging around 6,000 years ago) in an nearly subliminal manipulation of our gestalt sense of our peer's beliefs.

I may not know what I'm talking about, but I know how to sell it with the words...

But anyway, my idea is this. You're driving along, undecided or at least unsure of your candidate. You see a bunch of car's sporting stickers for one guy and think, with or without realizing it, "Hm, he must be pretty good to have so many people believing in him..." That thought is exactly why polls can have such a "momentum" effect. Lots of people siding with McCain? More people might take a moment to reconsider. Lots of people switch to Obama? People will take a moment to reconsider in his direction.

Bumper stickers also have an appeal through peer pressure. See a car that you like, that is similar to yours, or that somehow implies a value system you support? You're going to give extra cred to the view espoused on its back side. See a driver with a similar match? It is going to have a similar effect of reinforcing the impact of that endorsement. Think of the McCain supporting Buick I spotted -- fits right into the target audience of that campaign. 'Round here, in 'Bama country, you see his stickers on so many different kinds of cars that it is actually tough to generalize into a particular group: compact import pickup truck, Impala SS, new Mercedes, tired old Honda Civic, as well as the obvious like an outdoorsy Subaru or a hipster VW.

Like I said -- I have no evidence for this, but it sounds good.

The important thing is that bumper stickers act fast. They act on a glance. No one has time to read them -- you shouldn't at least! You see that round Obama swooshy thing. Or the martial samll-caps of McCain. And you register that car's vote. The pun-sticker runs the very serious risk (and I use the term seriously loosely here) of appearing as a vote for the opposite candidate. If there hadn't been the clear and straight forward Obama sticker on the car that sparked this whole thing (it was the tired Honda Civic, by the way, and also had a "Free Leonard Peltier" sticker, and I haven't seen one of those in a long time), I might have registered my count as 7:3, not 8:2.

The fun, the politics, the wit, all make sense if you are Saturday Night Live or John Stewart, but at 75 miles per hour on I-5 (and I again admit that I didn't get anywhere close to 75 miles with the traffic tonight!), you've got to keep it simple!

Oh, and by the way, there were also a bunch of Nader people waving and holding signs and banners from an overpass, trying to get people to honk in support. No one honked.

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