More Than Decoration: Self Expression and Bumper Stickers


[Photo by Cassandra Palor | Daily Utach Chronicle]

By Josh Petersen, Digital Managing Editor


Whether you are walking through the parking lot or gazing at the sea of laptops in a lecture hall, bumper stickers are a constant fixture on campus. These little stickers are everywhere and everyone has their own style. At this point, even having no stickers is its own kind of aesthetic choice. We asked 12 University of Utah students and alumni about whether they owned bumper stickers, where they put the stickers and the motivations behind their choice. Their answers showed how this trend works and why it might have a certain appeal.

In this survey, respondents were asked how many stickers they owned. Most people had at least one sticker, though there was a range. Some respondents didn’t have any stickers and two people had five stickers, which was the highest amount reported. There was an almost even split between people purchasing their own stickers and people receiving their stickers for free or as gifts.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people aren’t putting their bumper stickers on an actual bumper. Four respondents said they put stickers on their laptop, three put them on notebooks and three put them on water bottles. Other responses included binders, mirrors and refrigerators.

While there wasn’t a clear generational shift in the use of bumper stickers, it seems that for college students, technology is the ideal canvas. It makes a certain amount of sense— most students probably spend as much time on their computer as in their car. In a technologically inundated world, many want to make their devices more human and personal.

Respondents offered a variety of reasons they liked having bumper stickers. Two separate respondents gave similar answers: “I can show my interests, and they add to the aesthetic,” said sustainability and marketing student Celina Uhl. Skyler DeVries, a senior studying parks and recreation, said, “They add to an aesthetic or theme.” Stickers are a quick way to add visual appeal, especially to an object that can be cold and generic. Collecting these stickers can be a kind of hobby, as participants try to find the most eclectic and eye-catching items that reflect their own personal taste.

For others, sticker use is a more practical consideration. Junior musical theater student Cara Szeles said, “They can help you figure out which car is yours quickly,” and Mikayla McCauley, a senior studying elementary education said, “I like having a little bit of individuality on my car because, otherwise, it just looks like everyone else’s!”

The most interesting answer may have come from alumni Megan Hulse Bartholomew. She said, “I like being able to personalize my items and show my interests outwardly, and stickers are a fun way to do that!” Bartholomew’s comment illustrates a possible benefit and drawback of stickers— they become quick visual shorthand for a person’s personality and identity. With just a few stickers, a person can express their political opinions, pop cultural preferences, favorite travel destinations and even their sense of humor. On the plus side, these stickers can be a simple, amusing method of self-expression. On the negative side, it can be easy to make a preliminary judgment on someone, even though these stickers are seemingly trivial and surface-level. It’s easy to draw conclusions about a person, even without having a conversation.

What does a “good vibes” sticker say? What about one that says “proud dog mom”? Does the “coexist” logo inspire you or make you roll your eyes? What assumptions do you make if a laptop has the NRA logo and an announcement that “big government sucks”? What if it’s the Human Rights Campaign equality sign and the statement “I love reproductive rights”? Is an NPR sticker the sign of a fellow radio nerd or a pompous snooze? Do you view Greek life association as an exciting friend prospect or a red flag?

While it’s impossible to control the variety of messages these stickers might spend, many students at the U still enjoy the exercise. Alumni Charlotte Kelley said that bumper stickers express “memories of places or things that are important to me.” It’s clear that for many, these stickers hold deeper meaning than idle decoration.

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