I’d never put a bumper sticker on a car of mine before this year. The perceived power of the adhesive to far outlast the relevance of the message always deterred me, especially when I passed cars with sun-bleached “Minnesota Twins. 1987 World Champions” banners affixed to dangling, rusted bumpers. In 2004, however, a presidential election year pitting an incumbent who looks like Alfred E. Newman, talks like John Wayne sucking helium and governs like Nero, and an articulate war hero from New England as the challenger, well, it seemed time to do more than throw empty beer cans at the television.
Feeling a need to express my deep displeasure with an administration that had failed Americans on so many levels in so many ways, I ended up ordering a bumper sticker on-line that said, “Save America. Recall Bush.” Simple. Straightforward. Easily read by tailgaters. I liked that it was both a reference to the recent recall of California governor Pete Wilson, and less overtly, to the fact that Bush was appointed President by the Supreme Court, making him more like a mid-level government clerk than Commander and Chief, and giving his claim to the presidency little legitimacy.
So I inhaled, peeled off the backing, and pressed the sticker to the rear bumper of my 1997 Toyota Camry. “Save America. Recall Bush.” Now I had done it. I’d raised my flag, turned the spotlight on myself, proclaimed my allegiance to a cause. I had publicly taken sides.
It took about a week before I got any reaction. It happened near my exit off of 94 near downtown Minneapolis during the afternoon rush hour. This relatively short stretch of freeway is habitually clogged at that time with endless streams of entering and exiting vehicles. As I neared my off-ramp, traffic to my left was moving slightly faster than my lane, and a towering white SUV with gold trim pulled up beside me. The passenger window was rolled down, and the crimson-faced, thirty-something execupunk driver was yelling at me. As I turned my head to the left, I heard one discernable word amid engine noise and honking: “Asshole.” Then SUV boy gunned it and quickly sped forward. I had scored a hit. Contact with the enemy! He was pissed, I was bemused, and there was a certain sense of exhilaration that then turned to anxiety—How sane was he? …he might have had a gun under his seat or he could have made one quick jerk of his steering wheel and they’d be picking gold trim out of my forehead in an emergency room. As the months passed, though, I grew accustomed to the occasional fingers and unintelligible harangues. Someone in the gentrified suburb of Edina even slipped a haughty missive under a windshield wiper of my parked car with the basic message, “Who would you rather have? Clinton?” as if only the most adle-brained Marxist sexual deviant would consider Bubba preferable to Bush.
The most unexpected response came from a colleague at work, a normally cheery, rosy-cheeked account executive at our agency. During an otherwise routine meeting the topic meandered to politics then bumper stickers and I mentioned I was putting on a “Kerry/Edwards” sticker. Without a change in tone or a segue, she said, “Good. I hope your going to put it over the other one (“Save America. Recall Bush.”). I think it’s un-American.” I tilted my head like a confused Cocker Spaniel. “Un-American?” I asked. “That’s just my opinion,” she answered, smiling professionally. The conversation snapped back to copy deadlines and cost estimates, but it was disconcerting to be told I was un-American and I remained distracted throughout the meeting. True, the sentiments of the bumper sticker were decidedly anti-Bush, but un-American? I thought being able to criticize politicians was what made us Americans. I decided that pursuing my questions with that particular account executive would upset the political feng shui in the office, and my boss, so I let it go.
It has been a valuable lesson in the power of words. As a copywriter, I bang out so many words every day that I can sometimes underestimate their impact on readers (except when the reader is a client who hates my work). And bumper stickers aren’t as benign as I had imagined. People read them, and people react to them. A few carefully chosen words pasted to your car can send blood pressures rising, nostrils flaring and profanities spewing. So, based on my limited experience, I have two words of advice for those weighing whether or not to stick the sticker during this highly charged political season: Goo Gone®