Brian A. Kinnaird Ph.D.

The Hero in You

Cultural Confrontation via Decal Domination

Critiquing signs and symbols as the new "post-truth" visual zeitgeist.

Posted Nov 02, 2019

I’ve traveled across the U.S. for many years, and whether I’m stationary in my hometown or traveling for business and pleasure, the proliferation of signs and symbols that adorn vehicles and apparel continues to grow with great attitude and potency. Our roads, highways, and interstates are raging with tempestuous car decals, vanity license plates, and frames. Nearly every car has something to say beyond its year, make, model, and color.

If you’re like me, you eagerly pull up in traffic to try and read what it says (and then become annoyed that you did). Other times, you may see it and smile in affirmation and validation, or shake your head in disgust or anger.

The same process is apparent when viewing people’s clothes and headgear while stopping for fuel at a convenience store, grocery store, shopping mall, or restaurant (minus your overt gestures in public—you save that for your car). On that note, I can’t tell anymore if people are emphatically talking on the phone or to themselves! I’m the latter.

I’ve always been interested in this phenomenon of a “sticker society"—as a lifelong people-watcher, law enforcement officer (clothes and vehicle descriptions often help us catch those pesky bad guys), and social scientist finding the hidden splendor in the anxieties and absurdities of human existence. Very simply, cars and clothes have become social billboards in a consumerist culture concerned with advertising. But what is it we’re advertising?

There have always been bumper stickers and vanity license plates or frames; however, experimental marketing campaigns have paved the way for more and more diverse products including cheaper and easier to apply and remove decals and magnets, yard signs, home window banners, t-shirts, hats, and a plethora of funny or clever ways to express yourself and support the people or purposes that you love and care about.

There are a number of great research and short articles out there on consumer knowledge, advertising, marketing, and the psychology of bias and stereotypes, including "How We Drive" and "The Psychology of Bumper Stickers." I’m interested in drilling down on some of the deeper roots of this phenomenon when it comes to symbolic interactionism. Indeed, decals and graphics are a lucrative business, and people are making money off of us, but they have to have reason to do so.

For the most part, we have long understood adolescence, because we’ve all been there and typically reflect on it through hindsight. Social status cues and cliques that interpret teenage angst through the crisis of identity have been studied many times over, and we all remember what it was like to be misunderstood or to try and fit in. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Lawrence Kohlberg and Jean Piaget's work on the stages of cognitive and moral development are well-known and proven theoretical models of motivation and reasoning as it relates to both business and human life.  

Tattoos, piercings, clothes, and hairstyles are just a few ways we express ourselves. The information society has created new and creative ways to do so through social media outlets, where we can post images and words that express little about facts and more about feelings. We are immersed in symbols and signs that are often grounded in politics, religion, school, and hobbies. Why? Because they are the primary institutions responsible for our psycho-social development as human beings. These institutions (and their subsequent decal duality) represent our real or perceived self through identification with family, friends, vocations, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political and religious affiliations, and even socioeconomic status.

People love their animals. They love their honor student children and grandchildren. They love flags, branches of the military, and service in a war. They love sports. They love their family (often denoted by a long horizontal line of stick figures in a rear car window). They love their music. They love whoever is running for political office. They love comic book superheroes. They love to support causes to fight personal tragedies and maladies. They love so many things—and certainly want you to know it!

Likewise, the same can be said for those who hate and despise such tender stake-a-claims. So much so that they have counter stickers, graphics, and clothes designed to oppose a position through "subvertising" (subversive advertising). Whether poking fun or mounting an antithetical sticker struggle, they want you to know it too!

In a society that lives less by the word and more by pictures and images, it’s not difficult to understand the business of signs and the metaphorical and metonymical symbolic interaction system that goes with them. More specifically, symbols will be perceived as either similar (standing for something) or contiguous (connected to something it was once associated with or currently a part of). They point to the power of possibilities associated with both positive and negative conformity

An additional perspective worth examination is symbolic interactionism as a special quality of human mentality (aptly called intentionality), that makes life a series of decisions that either propel us into a scary, unknown future or an equally scary, predictable past—either of which creates pain and guilt. So how do we manage? Stickers!

The cooperative or conquering attitude that gives meaning to our symbols actually provides a uniformity that we all share beyond propaganda. Those images that divide us are uniquely embedded in a process that unifies us. 

Copyright © 2019 by Brian A. Kinnaird. All rights reserved.


Kohlberg, L. (1981). The philosophy of moral development: moral stages and the idea of justice. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.