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April 30, 2009

News & Features

Bumper stickers are funny, political and weird -- and growing more rare

CTW Features

Bumper sticker

Illustration by Amber Tafoya

For decades, drivers have used their bumpers as moving billboards. Bumper stickers show our political leanings, our religious affiliations, where we've vacationed and what type of dogs we have. They offer a glimpse into a driver's sense of humor (Just say no to negativity) or sense of injustice (I had a life, but my job ate it).

Historians believe that Forest P. Gill, a Kansas City-area printer, invented the bumper sticker in the 1930s. Gill began experimenting with attaching advertisements to car bumpers with wire, and eventually began working with self-sticking adhesive. The idea took hold, the stickers stuck, and by the time the Gill-line company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1984 it had produced more than 1 billion bumper stickers.

Bumper sticker trivia
  • In 1999, a Florida woman was charged with violating a state statute banning obscene stickers. The case was eventually dismissed.
  • In 2004, questionnaires given to prospective jurors in the high-profile Scott Peterson murder trial in California asked if they had any bumper stickers on their cars, and if so, what they said.
  • In 2008, a Colorado State University study found that the more bumper stickers a person had on a car, the more prone he or she was to road rage.

The way that bumper stickers can both enlighten and enrage is what drew Paul Rosa into the industry nearly two decades ago. In the early 1990s, Rosa was a stand-up comedian who spent a lot of time on the road. As he drove hundreds of miles, he began to be irked by a particularly popular bumper sticker.

"It said, 'I'm proud of my honor student,'" Rosa says. "It was harmless enough, but a little annoying, people bragging about their kids to strangers on the highway. I decided to design my own bumper sticker that said, 'My kid beat up your honor student.'"

Rosa began selling the stickers after his comedy shows. "I ended up making almost as much money selling those stickers as I did performing," he says. Buoyed by the popularity of the bumper stickers, Rosa started his company and still operates New York-based Idiot Ink.

Rosa has sold more than 1.8 million bumper stickers, many through major retail chains. But in recent years, Rosa's business and the bumper sticker industry in general have been in decline. The stickers just aren't as prevalent as they were when Rosa's first pithy plays on words were pasted on cars around the country.

What's the reason for the demise of bumper stickers? Rosa believes it's a generational shift. "There is less rebellion than there was 35 or 40 years ago. There are fewer causes for rage -- gay rights and civil rights and women's rights have all advanced. There's no draft."

Rosa believes people are also more wary of displaying their political or social views on their bumpers. "People tell me they are worried about being vandalized by somebody who doesn't agree with their stickers."

And with the average sale price of a new car approaching $30,000, consumers are more reluctant to decorate with stickers.

"We see more bumper stickers on the less-expensive cars," says David Williams, general manager of Empire Lakewood Nissan in the Denver area. "We see very few on the more expensive models."

That doesn't mean car owners have been completely silenced. Williams says he has noticed more stickers taped to car windows, along with magnetic stickers and personalized license plates.

"People are still expressing themselves, just in different ways," he says.

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