The driver in front of me is a hot sexy mama. Next to her is the proud parent of a Highland Elementary School honors student.
When you’re stuck in East Valley traffic, you learn a lot — sometimes too much — about fellow drivers just by reading their bumper stickers. Nothing is off limits: Sexual orientation, religion, political ideology, eating habits.
Now that Americans are spending more time than ever in their cars — an average of 70 minutes per day, according to the National Personal Travel Survey — slapping on a bumper sticker amounts to a declaration of independence.
"People put things on their cars to make a symbolic point about themselves," said Charles Larson, a communications professor at Northern Illinois University who studies the effects of persuasion in advertising.
For example, there’s the driver in Mesa who used his bumper to declare, "I don’t dial 911. . . . I reach for 357." Let’s assume for the sake of public safety that he’s joking. What was he really trying to say?
"Here’s who I am, and don’t mess with me," explained Diane Gruber, communication lecturer at Arizona State University’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. "For him, the car becomes a means of mass communication."
For political campaign managers and advertisers, who spend an average of $430 per person to get their message across, it’s an effective communication tool. Studies show that voters are twice as likely to go to the polls if they see a campaign button or bumper sticker in support of a particular candidate, Larson said.
And, it’s a pretty inexpensive political weapon for grass-roots movements.
Several sport utility vehicle owners in California found stickers such as "SUV = Selfish Urban Vanity" or "My SUV Funds Terrorism. Ask Me Why" added to their bumpers. Would-be activists can download the stickers from the "I Don’t Care About the Air" Web site and print them onto labels at about 10 cents per sticker.
The bumper sticker has transformed the car into an anonymous confession. Here are some East Valley residents who’ve bared their souls on their cars:
"CAN YOU STILL DRIVE WITH THAT CELL PHONE UP YOUR ASS?"
Dave Ellis, a Vietnam veteran and former police officer, disliked drivers with handheld cell phones long before a woman in a black Ford Expedition nearly slammed into him a year and a half ago on U.S. 60. She was too busy chatting on her phone to notice the near miss.
"People do not understand that you cannot do two things at once," the 56-year-old Mesa accountant explained.
It’s an in-your-face message if you’re stuck behind Ellis’ ’68 Dodge Dart and you want to make a phone call.
But Gruber, the ASU communication lecturer, doubts the effectiveness of Ellis’ bumper sticker. Usually, it takes five sightings for a message to sink in. And most people have already made up their minds, whether the issue is abortion or gun control. The sticker will either elicit approval or vehement disagreement.
Ellis found the sticker at a car show in Yuma, six months after his near-miss. If any cell phone users disagree with his bumper sticker, they’re keeping it to themselves. Ellis said the only feedback he’s gotten is positive.
"THE GODDESS IS ALIVE AND MAGIC IS AFOOT."
Sharon Hall is a witch. The bumper stickers on her rear windshield say so.
"The Goddess is Alive and Magic is Afoot," proclaims one such sticker. And there’s a pentagram right alongside it.
Hall became a witch, a follower of Wicca, four years ago. Before that, she was a devout follower of a religion she calls "Sharonism."
A self-proclaimed empath, Hall doesn’t look or act like anything you’ve seen on "The Wizard of Oz," and that may be why her bumper stickers don’t get much of a reaction.
With her sensible glasses, co iffed hair and self-deprecating sense of humor, this Mesa mother of two — who describes herself as a "goofball sometimes" — resembles the typical soccer mom. Except for the pentacle, a five-pointed star representing the elements of air, fire, water, earth and spirit, hanging around her neck.
"It’s no different than a Christian wearing a cross," said Hall, who purchased the bumper stickers adorning her red vehicle at a metaphysical bookstore.
David Myers is not a bumper sticker freak.
But when the United States was on the brink of war with Iraq, the lawyer and Guadalupe resident didn’t waste time hunting for an "Impeach Bush" bumper sticker. He just clicked "print" on his computer and taped the homemade bumper sticker on his rear window just above "War is not the Answer," turning his blue Subaru station wagon into a moving political statement.
"I feel that killing people is wrong," said Myers, a grayhaired Jesuit who shares his simple home behind Our Lady of Guadalupe with three dogs.
Perhaps it’s his Irish ancestry, but Myers isn’t the type to care what other people think. It’s a pretty gutsy stance to take amid a sea of patriotic stickers featuring "God Bless America" or "United We Stand." But then, as a part-time teacher of logic and debate at South Mountain Community College’s Guadalupe site, Myers is trying to be an example to his students.