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Christopher Gavrilov
Christopher Gavrilov

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Across the country, politicians are spending millions on splashy ad campaigns -not just TV time but there's radio, the Internet, maybe even a billboard or two. Don't forget the focus groups. When graduate student Patti Brown picked a project for her class in political advertising, she bypassed all those big-ticket items and went for something far simpler and more enduring: the bumper sticker.


CONAN: And of course, we want to hear from listeners as well, especially if you're stuck behind a politically festooned vehicle. Do you have a favorite political bumper sticker? Do you prefer not to wear your politics on your Chevy? Gives us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.


Ms. BROWN: Well, at this point, we haven't really done empirical research from a quantitative point of view, but we've done a lot of qualitative study on history of the bumper sticker and its use. But I think we're really interested in taking the project to the next level with a quantitative look at the use of the bumper sticker.


Ms. BROWN: Well, I think a bumper sticker is definitely an important tool of political communication. I think it may play a larger role on the part of the individual putting the bumper sticker on his or her car, in that the bumper sticker is a sign of political engagement in the whole process. I don't know that the political bumper sticker on the back end of your car is necessarily going to sway other voters...


Ms. BROWN: That's a good way of putting it. I think the more contemporary, modern bumper sticker today that's made of vinyl is a little more removable than the bumper sticker of yore, which used to have some kind of glue that with, you know, last throughout the millennium but, yeah, it's going to be with your car for a while.


Ms. BROWN: Well, I think here in Iowa, we have a lot of people who are very politically engaged because of our Iowa caucus process. And I think that's what really got me interested in looking at the bumper sticker. Last fall as our semester started, we were at the height of political frenzy here as all of the candidates that were on both sides of the ticket were here, you know, stumping and you had a lot of activity going on, and seeing more and more bumper stickers showing up on cars. And I was really curious, how important is that bumper sticker in a campaign? Does it, you know, does it make a difference?


I think what it does is it helps to concretize the opinion of the person who might be supporting the candidate. It firms up their opinion in a public way, shows that they're an early decider and that may help to influence others who know them well and see them as an opinion leader. But at this point, I think it would be a little hard to actually measure empirically what the actual dollar value of a bumper sticker is or how many voters sign on to support of a candidate because of seeing bumper stickers.


Ms. BROWN: I don't understand his alphabet system there, but I believe it was the Model A that had the bumper on it. And so you didn't really have something that you could put on a bumper until you had a bumper. And that wasn't until the end of the 1920s. But you had various versions of signs that could be attached to cars because they were seen as, you know, a roving mobile billboard of sorts.


Ms. BROWN: No, not necessarily. At that point, more predominantly, people were using stickers but not necessarily a bumper sticker. They were more stickers that you could put in a window of a car or on the window of, maybe, your business, you know, you could stick a window, on the door of your business if someone would walk through the door, or you could take that same sticker and maybe attach it to the inside of your window on your automobile.


The bumper sticker idea didn't really evolve until right after World War II. You had a convergence of some technologies. You had a certain kind of sticky-backed paper that became available as a post-war effort product and you also had fluorescing inks. And the sticky-backed paper was dark. It had been developed for military use and fluorescing inks were - they popped, they worked on that kind of that dark background. And there was a printer in Kansas City, Forest Gill, who had been a silkscreen printer and had made silkscreen printing on canvas goods. And he knew that, well, if you could put a canvas cover on a tire on an old-fashioned car and print advertising on it, you could also take these new pieces of sticky-backed paper and print something on them.


He went out to his automobile, measured his own car with his ruler and came in and figured out how many big pieces of paper he could cut out of his larger sheet and the original bumper sticker was born.


Ms. BROWN: ...samples of the first bumper stickers. It's presumed that the very first ones that he created were not for political use, they were advertising use and because, you know, cars were very big post-World War II, you have big bumpers, so you could have a big bumper sticker. And all of a sudden gas was not rationed, and tires were not rationed. And people wanted to go on vacation; hadn't been during the war years.


CONAN: We're talking with Patti Brown, a graduate student who's studying political bumper stickers. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, e-mail is talk@npr.org. And Frederick(ph) joins us, Frederick with us from St. Helena in California.


FREDERICK (Caller): That's right. Good morning. Hello - good morning, our time. I'm driving a rent-a-car and actually I have wondered where I could find a peace symbol to put on my rent-a-car. But my question is this, I live in an area - I'm actually a snowbird here in California and I live in New England where there are many bumper stickers on cars - a relatively liberal part of America, right?


FREDERICK: We see very few conservative bumper stickers back in New England. And I'm wondering if your guest - have you found, Patti, that - have you wondered why - have you answered why there are not as many conservative stickers and people that are more conservative wearing bumper stickers?


Ms. BROWN: You might want to do that. I think that there could be a regional difference too. I think taking a look at regionally, if you counted cars with bumper stickers in parking lots in different, you know, mall shopping centers, regionally, on a particular day of the year might be an interesting thing to figure out where do the most cars with bumper stickers seem to show up.


Ms. BROWN: Because of my First Amendment right to express that opinion. And that's the only reason - I think, you know, that's one of the wonderful things about the bumper sticker in our country. You have the opportunity to have freedom of expression in the public square and at the same time you're blending a couple of really powerful iconic symbols, you know, you've got the American car which has, you know, for good or bad, it has a lot of symbolism of power and prestige. And then you're also blending politics, so it's politics - all of the things that go into the American sex symbol of the car and freedom of speech. I mean that's pretty powerful.


Ms. BROWN: I think that there has been a very limited amount of research done with bumper stickers. But one of the things that has been shown is the higher price the car, the less likely a car owner will place a bumper sticker on it.


And so then you can say, well, do more conservative people who might not maybe have as many bumper stickers on their car drive higher-priced cars or do - you know, there's a lot of questions, hypotheses that I think could be studied here as to who puts bumper stickers on their car? What's the socioeconomic level of that particular group? What's the price point range or the age of the car? And what's the political affiliation? So there&#x