&Quot;Have You Kissed Your Professor Today?&Quot;: Bumper Stickers and Consumer Self-Statements


Barbara B. Stern and Michael R. Solomon (1992) ,"&Quot;Have You Kissed Your Professor Today?&Quot;: Bumper Stickers and Consumer Self-Statements", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 169-173.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 169-173


Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Michael R. Solomon, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Cars and other vehicles both shape and reflect consumer behavior processes, insofar as they often serve as an important extension of the self and as a mediator of self-concept (Belk 1988; Solomon 1983). Their influence on the consumer extends beyond their transportation function, for cars have affected demographic patterns by providing the catalyst for suburban development. Additionally, they have affected social relationships by facilitating changes in sexual mores via drive-in movies, "lovers' lanes," and -- with the popularity of vans -- portable bedrooms. Cars are also powerful symbols that express cultural values such as power, freedom, materialism, success, and individualism.

As expressions of individualism, cars are a canvas for personal statements. In addition to the symbolic statement made by the car itself, consumers can add self-statements by means of bumper stickers and additional symbolic statements by means of other ornamentation, such as objects dangling from mirrors, custom paint jobs, and elaborate stereo equipment. Bumper stickers represent a unique ornamentation category in that they convey direct consumer statements -- self-proclamations, names of kinship groups, messages about the self or directives to others, epithets, boasts (Baker 1991), and so forth --in words. As such, they afford the opportunity to study consumer communication about the self (personal identity) and about the self in relation to others (social identity) in terms of verbal artifacts that the consumer has chosen. Furthermore, since they are widely available and inexpensive, bumper stickers can be exhibited by consumers of many social strata. The overt and public nature of these verbal statements render them not only highly visible, but also fortuitously accessible for research purposes.

The aim of our overall research project on car ornamentation is to understand the dynamics of cars as social canvases on which expressions of the self are displayed against the background context of mass culture. This paper begins the project by developing a theoretical base for analysis of bumper stickers as a communication medium for consumers and by reporting on the findings of an exploratory study designed to test the theoretical concepts. To initiate the research stream on verbal ornamentation, we address the following questions:

--What kinds of messages are likely to be conveyed?

--How can the universe of messages be described taxonomically?

--What future research issues should be addressed?


Bumper stickers represent an outlet for consumer creativity (Stern and Zaichkowsky 1991), insofar as selection processes are involved in two choices: first, the choice to use (or not to use) a sticker, and second, which one to use. In terms of use versus non-use, let us note that since the purchase of stickers is voluntary, their absence is a statement as significant as their presence. As expressions of creativity, stickers afford an opportunity for playfulness, humor, statements of feelings and opinions, and announcements of affiliation. These statements can be personal or social, micro-level or macro-level, and self-deprecating or self-enhancing. While often the verbiage is not "original" -- that is, unique to the consumer -- this is not always the case, for catalogs such as Hanover House sell "design your own" customized messages. No matter what the message content, its media "reach" is widespread, for it is a public self-statement observable by all passers-by.

This research relates to studies of other forms of public self-statements that can be considered aspects of the extended self -- notably tee shirt slogans -- but differs in focus. Unlike tee shirts, cars are durable goods, and bumper stickers represent a more permanent part of automotive decor than any single tee shirt in one's wardrobe. Thus, bumper stickers make a more enduring statement insofar as they are not easily changed or discarded, and for that reason may relate to the more stable aspect of the extended self.

Further, their explicitness as self-statements makes them more overt attitudinal comments. In effect, consumers are revealing something about their attitudes directly in words -- a medium not only visible to other drivers and pedestrian passers-by, but also to researchers. The nature of these statements (or lack thereof) is not only visible, but also readily amenable to interpretation as specimens of language with formal dimensions (grammatical and literary) as well as with content dimensions. What consumers say about themselves symbolically through their possessions has been studied in reference to the "extended self" (Belk 1988), with objects viewed as implicit self-statements. We propose that examination of bumper stickers can extend our knowledge of the extended self by affording researchers the opportunity to analyze explicit attitudinal comments. In sum, the stability, visibility, and interpretability of bumper stickers make them a meaningful canvas for researchers to examine.




Once bumper stickers are identified as worthy of analysis, the next question is, how best can they be analyzed? The theoretical basis was drawn from the trilogy in communication theory -- source, message, and target. "Source" was interpreted as the car, and its attributes were defined as number of ornamental items per car, make and model of vehicle, condition, and so forth. "Message" was defined as the content or theme of the words (the "what"), and "target" was defined as the referent -- the person/group/thing that the message is about (the "who").

In order to maximize understanding of both content and form of the messages, we decided to augment the methodology of content analysis with a familiar method for analyzing sentences: grammatical parsing. That is, for each word group on a sticker we set out to identify the parts of speech (noun, verb, pronoun), its grammatical function (subject, verb, object), and the kind of statement (declarative, interrogative, imperative), just as one would do if one were to parse an English sentence. The purpose of this was to expose the linguistic structure of the messages in order to use grammatical form as well as content as a guide to meaning.

Since the universe of messages has not received research attention, a pilot study was conducted to ascertain the formal and content domains in a representative environment. This study was conducted in a northeastern suburb, using student observers to collect data from a sample of cars (N = 200) observed over several occasions in the parking lot of a large suburban shopping mall serving a wide trading area. The researchers examined the samples inductively, subjecting them to a content analysis using a researcher-generated typology of meaning similar to "domains" typologies used in exploratory psychological research. The procedure involves sorting the messages into groups based on the dimensions of meaning conveyed by the grammatical enitities -- verb ("theme") and the noun or pronoun ("referent"). Further sorting took place when the focus was on content, to identify the areas of expression (such as hobby/sport/lifestyle or political/environmental/patriotic) and strength of expression (neutral, negative, positive). The outline of the matrix and the thirteen categories will now be discussed (see Table).


The concept of content or theme in verbal messages has long been used in content analysis (see Kassarjian 1977), and is especially suited to short and unambiguous messages such as those in advertisements (Belk and Pollay 1985), and humorous ones such as those in comic books (Spiggle 1986). Since bumper stickers convey attitudes about the self, the attitude model of affect-cognition-behavior seemed a likely source of thematic dimensions. We hypothesized that the attitude's locus would be expressed in the verb, for that is the grammatical indicator of the "what" of meaning. The four theme categories express the "what" of the messages in the universe examined, including the dynamic categories of "feeling-doing-thinking" and the static category of metonymic association.

Feeling messages are about affect, and express a feeling or an emotion. The verbs are likely to be ones indicating action, but "internal" action that occurs within the individual rather than "external" action that occurs on the social stage. An example is, "I love New York." Doing messages are about behavior, and are likely to indicate overt or external action. This is generally expressed by active verbs -- those that take objects. An example is, "Rugby players eat their young," in which the subject ("Rugby players") does something ("eat") to the object ("their young"). In contrast, being messages, those about a thought, an opinion, or a a state of being, are likely to be indicated by verbs of being (to be, to seem, to appear). These are linking verbs that do not have an object, but merely link two entities. An example is, "If you're rich, I'm single," an if-then expression of the state of being of the message source ("I am single") and also of the target ("You are single").

A fourth message category was necessary to categorize those messages that had no verbs, and thus expressed neither action nor inaction. This was called metonymic (Stern 1992) to indicate that the message cathectically associates some person, place, idea, or thing with the car to which it is attached. In this category, the connection of the message with the source is assumed on the basis of cathexis, for just as body parts are in cathectic association with the consumer, so too are bumper stickers with a car. Grammatically, the message is likely to be limited to a noun or noun phrase, for it names something, and in the absence of any verb, the action can only be presumed to be an association of the item named with the consumer. Some examples are, "Power 95" (the name of a radio station), "Rutgers," the name of a university, and "AAA," (the abbreviated name of the American Automobile Association).


"Referent" refers to the person, group, or thing that the message is about -- that is, its "who." Grammatical concepts of nominal and pronomial reference reflect the tendency of people to make statements about themselves, other people, or ideas. English pronominal structure determined the parsing of statements to distinguish between first-person usage ("I," "we"), second-person usage ("you"), and third-person usage ("he," "she," "it," and "they"). Note that the third-person includes the non-personal "it," and that "they" is an all-purpose plural denoting more than one of anything (personal or abstract). The sticker referents echoed these categories, depending on whether they referred to the personal (self), the other (collective, group), or the non-personal (abstract).

Self messages refer to a comment about the person(s) on whose car the sticker appears. The context is personal, and is indicated grammatically by the first-person singular or plural ("I" or "we"). The sticker makes a statement (a declarative sentence) about the "I" or the "we." An example of the singular self-statement is, "I love New York," and of the plural, "We brake for animals."

Collective/other messages refer to a comment about a collective group of individuals that may or may not include the self. The context is social, and the "other" may be an institution, a religious or ethnic group, an occupational group, a country-of-origin, or any entity that comprises a group of people considered as part of a collective (rather than as individuals). When the grammatical mood is declarative -- a statement of fact -- the message is meant (albeit facetiously) to be read as a true statement. One example is, "Sewer diggers do it deeper," referring to an occupational group in a third-person plural. Another is, "Mother-in-law in trunk," referring to someone other than the self in a third-person elliptical declarative statement, with "is" omitted but understood.

When the grammatical mood is the imperative -- that is, a command to "others" -- the message is in the second-person, for "you" is implied in imperatives. An example is, "Kiss a nurse today," where the "you" is understood ["you should kiss a nurse today"] and the command is given via an active verb ("kiss") to do something to another ("a nurse").

Abstract messages refer to comments about an object, idea, place, or any other non-personal entity. The impersonal subject can be singular or plural ("it," and "they" in reference to things, not people), and tangible (a place) or intangible (an idea). The mood can be a full sentence, as in "It's ugly, but it's paid for," which is a complete comment about an object, or an elliptical sentence, as in "Insured by Smith and Wesson," where "[This car is...]" is implied. Abstract messages can also take the form of commands, such as "Split wood, not atoms." Here, the "you" is understood, and the imperative mood is used to command action ("split").


The categories described above are used in the "Theme-Referent Matrix," numbered to facilitate the explanations and illustrative examples that follow.

Doing-Self (1) messages refer to a comment (statement, question, command) about an action performed by the self ("I") singly or as a part of a group of similar individuals ("we"). An example of a singular message is, "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go," in which the self is the doer of the actions ("owe" and "go"). An example of a singular question -- the interrogative -- is, "How's my driving?" Here, the self asks a question about something s/he is doing ("driving").

Doing-Collective (2) messages refer to a comment (statement, question, command) about an action in reference to a group of others (not the self). A declarative statement is, "Rugby players eat their young," and an imperative is, "Respect animals, don't eat them." In the latter, a group of others -- the implicit "you" -- are ordered to do something positive ("respect animals") and to avoid doing something negative ("don't eat them").

Doing-Abstract (3) messages refer to a comment (statement, question, command) about an action in reference to an object, place, idea, and so forth. Examples of commands that include what should be done as well as what should not be done are, "Split wood, not atoms," and "Hugs, not drugs." An example of a declarative statement about general life action is, "S___ happens."

Being-Self (4) messages are declarative statements of a thought, opinion, or state of being of the self. Examples are, "I support Greenpeace," and "I'm a card-carrying member of the ACLU." "Bush for President" is an elliptical statement about a self-opinion, in which "I endorse" is omitted but understood.

Being-Collective (5) messages are statements or questions expressing a thought, opinion, or state of being associated with a collective (group) of others or about one or more other(s). Examples of statements are, "Whoever dies with the most toys, wins," and "Happiness is Being Pakistani." A question about the state of being of a group is, "What's a Pythian?"

Being-Abstract (6) messages refer to a thought, opinion, or state of being associated with a non-personal entity (place, object, idea). An opinion about a place is, "It's better in the Bahamas," and one about an idea is, "It's OK not to drink." More general comments about abstract states of being are, "Easy does it," and "One day at a time."

Feeling-Self (7) messages express a personal feeling or emotion. An example is, "I love my wife."

Feeling-Collective (8) messages express a feeling or emotion associated with a collective (group) of others. An example is, "Cambridge athletes: You gotta love 'em."

Feeling-Abstract (9) messages express a feeling or emotion associated with a non-personal entity (place, object, idea). An example is, "Vermont is for lovers."

Metonymic-Self (10) messages represent a name associated with the self. One group of messages are stickers such as "Big Mama" or "Proud Grandma." Proper nouns (as opposed to common nouns) are seen in stickers such as "Wendy's Wheels" or "Cindy's Car."

Metonymic-Collective (11) messages represent a name of a group. Examples are "National Rifle Association," "American Association of Retired Persons," and "Patrolmen's Benevolent Association."

Metonymic-Abstract (12) messages represent a name of a non-personal entity. Examples in the travel category (place) are "Howe Caverns" and "Niagara Falls."

Other (13) is a miscellaneous category needed to include exceptions, for while the matrix covers most forms of expression, there are certain unclassifiable types. One is the split-category type, which is unclassifiable because the message presents a statement that falls equally well into two categories. An example is, "I'm pro-choice, and I vote." Here, the first statement ("I'm pro choice") is Being-Self, while the second ("I vote") is Doing-Self. Another unclassifiable type is the ambiguous message, one in which the meaning is open to variant interpretations or is uninterpretable. Insofar as some group of stickers may not readily fit into the twelve-box matrix, the "other" category is needed.

An example of a message with more than one interpretation is "Chocaholic on board." While the message is one of being -- (the implicit verb is "is" and the statement in full would read, "chocaholic is on board), it is not clear whether the referent is the self or someone else. A question exists as to whether we should interpret such a message as a variation of the original being-collective message -- "baby on board" -- or whether we should interpret it as a departure from the original that has mutated into a being-self (3) comment.


The focus of sticker messages and their valence provide further insights into meaning, ones accessible to content analysis. On the basis of domains sorting (see above), nine areas of interest were identified:

1: Hobby/Sport/Lifestyle

2: Consumption/Product/Service

3: Professional/Occupational

4: Gender/Family/Sexuality

5: Institutional Affiliation

6: Political/Environmental/Patriotic

7: Experiential/Tourism

8: Theological/Spiritual

9: Ability/Attribute (Physical, Intellectual)

Additionally, valence or strength of expression was categorized as "neutral," "positive," or "negative."


There are four areas planned for future research on car ornamentation and meanings:

-- Existential-phenomenological exploration of vehicle/message meanings by means of personal interviews with car owners

-- Semiotic analysis of non-verbal symbols to study verbal/visual message interaction

-- Quantitative analysis of correlations between message, car, and driver characteristics

-- Literary analysis of message content in terms of other dimensions such as humor, sexual content, and word-play

Existential-phenomenological Exploration (E-P)

Since the gestalt meaning of a car includes both the vehicle itself and all of the ornamentation, we suggest that the E-P interview (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989) can be used to explore these meanings. These interviews allow respondents to reveal attitudes about all of the aspects of their cars to an interviewer who has been trained to elicit information. When this interview technique was used in prior research on women's attitudes toward shopping, consumption themes emerged that would not otherwise have been obtainable by more structured survey or focus group methods. Insofar as cars express magic/totemic and mnemonic qualities with deep subjective meanings, E-P interviews with owners seem to be a promising way of uncovering these meanings.

Semiotic Analysis of Non-Verbal Objects

We recall that in addition to stickers, car ornamentation also includes objects such as fuzzy dice and visuals such as pictorial ornaments. For this reason, semiotic analysis of iconic, indexical, and symbolic meanings can augment analysis of the verbal messages. One question is the relationship of verbal to non-verbal ornaments in terms of consistency -- are the messages redundant, or are they inconsistent?

Quantitative Analysis of Relationships Between Message, Car, and Driver

The question of message consistency raises the issue of more general relationships between types of messages and car attributes. In this regard, the correspondence of visual and/or verbal ornamentation to car types and driver characteristics needs study. Here, demographic variables such as age, gender, and subculture, and psychographic ones such as self-confidence, role-completeness, and role-stress can be investigated.

Literary Analysis of Messages: Sex and Humor

Many of the bumper stickers are humorous, using word-play such as puns and irony (Stern 1990) to structure the messages. The concept of a car as an outlet for humor requires further research, especially in view of the sexual nature of much of this humor. The sexual expressiveness of messages such as "Sewer diggers do it deeper" ties in with the importance of a car as a sex symbol, but what is interesting here is that the bumper stickers are almost always humorous comments on sex rather than serious ones. Social acceptibility may be at work here, in that stickers may represent a way to make a sexual statement in ironic or self-deprecating terms in order to avoid censure. A related matter for future investigation is the tendency of men versus women to make humorous and/or sexually provocative self-statements. Gender differences can be hypothesized on the basis of Lakoff's (1975) analysis of women's tendencies to avoid obscenity and slang expressions as "unladylike." To conclude, the importance of the automobile as one of the most significant material objects in popular culture may better be understood by extending consideration of the vehicle to include that of its owner-attached ornaments. The view of a car as a canvas upon which the consumer can create meaning allows for examination of the extended self by various means -- verbal and pictorial as well as product choice -- to provide a rounded picture of the relationship between vehicles and consumer culture.


Baker, Ross K. (1991), "Bumper Crop," American Demographics, January, 19.

Belk, Russell W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (September), 139-168.

Belk, Russell W. and Richard W. Pollay (1985), "Images of Ourselves: The Good Life in Twentieth Century Advertising," Journal of Consumer Research, 11 (March), 887-897.

Kassarjian, Harold H. (1977), "Content Analysis in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 4 (June), 8-18.

Lakoff, Robin (1975), Language and Woman's Place, New York: Harper and Row.

Solomon, Michael R. (1983), "The Role of Products as Social Stimuli: A Symbolic Interactionism Perspective," Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (December), 319-329.

Spiggle, Susan (1986), "Measuring Social Values: A Content Analysis of Sunday Comics and Underground Comix," Journal of Consumer Research, 13 (June), 100-113.

Stern, Barbara B. (1992), "Crafty Advertisers: Literary versus Literal Deceptiveness," Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, in press.

Stern, Barbara B. (1990), "Pleasure and Persuasion in Advertising: Rhetorical Irony as a Humor Technique," in Current Issues and Research in Advertising, 1989, Vol. 12, eds. James H. Leigh and Claude R. Martin, Jr., Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan, 25-42.

Stern, Barbara B. and Judy Zaichkowsky (1991), "That's Entertainment! The Impact of Creative Advertising on Consumer Responses," The Australian Journal of Marketing, in press.

Thompson, Craig J., William B. Locander, and Howard R. Pollio (1989), "Putting Consumer Experience Back into Consumer Research: The Philosophy and Method of Existential-Phenomenology," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (September), 133-147.



Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Michael R. Solomon, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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