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An Eye on the White House


July 17, 2017

The Proud History of Political Bumper Stickers

Last week, I extolled the virtues of the humblest form of political advertising: the bumper sticker. No one asked for such a defence, but I felt compelled to make one in the wake of the Democratic Party’s latest folly.

Sure, bumper stickers are annoying, ugly, and often dumb. But they’ve been a part of American politics for almost a hundred years. They’re a classic part of presidential campaigns, like the Iowa Straw Poll and the New Hampshire Primary.

No one’s sure exactly when, or where, the idea for bumper stickers originate. Esurance claims it was the 1927 Ford Model A that sparked the notion. Apparently, car owners just couldn’t resist sticking cardboard and metal signs to the rear of their Model As.

And why not? If you’ve got space to spare, you might as well use it to spread your deeply-held political convictions. T-shirts and tattoos weren’t in vogue yet, so opinionated politicos had little choice but to slap their preferences on a sign.

The Atlantic attributes the first actual bumper ‘sticker’ to a screen printer named Forest P. Gill in 1946. Mr. Gill developed a self-sticking sign by painting canvas with DayGlo ink on one side and adhesive on the other. By 1950, he made good business selling stickers in the advertising industry, mainly for tourist attractions.

The first political bumper stickers came about in the 1952 presidential election between Eisenhower and Stevenson. Eisenhower’s campaign also pioneered the first political TV ad. Stickers also served him well on re-election in 1956.

Not as catchy as, “I Like Ike.”

Forest Gill’s company went on to produce stickers for Kennedy, Regan, and Alabama governor George Wallace. But Mark Gilman, the current president of the company, says their product has been on the decline.

He blames social media, of course. By the way, isn’t this a great phrase? You could insert it into just about any article about anything and it would still be on-point.

Larry Bird, a Smithsonian Museum curated, agrees. He says today’s campaigns are tailored for television, while the presidential campaigns of yore were about face-to-face contact. With that, there is less desire for a tangible object to connote one’s political orientation.

A bumper sticker speaks to a time and place. It’s a verifiable commitment, one that isn’t always easy to just peel off. It says you’ve been somewhere, spoke to someone, taken a physical action to show your support. Social media just doesn’t have the same affect.