Friday, November 16, 2012

Bumper-Sticker Semiotics

While driving in Jersey City yesterday I found myself behind a Jeep SUV that had these slogans on stickers plastered to the tail gate:

I ♥ bacon

My Son is a U.S. Marine

I ♥ Obamacare

New York Giants

What’s that say about the car’s owner? Each sticker, of course, asserts an identification. It’s the collectivity of such identifications that’s interesting. Each of those stickers seems to mark a point along a different dimension in cultural-semantic space.

How many dimensions are in fact available in that space? That is, if we were to collect all available bumper stickers, load them into an appropriate piece of software and run the analysis, how many dimensions would we get and what would they be?

* * * * *

For one thing, we know how this person voted in the recent presidential election and we know too that they are patriotic. But there are some folks who’d be proud to tell you that their son is a marine, or more generally, in the U.S. military, but who don’t want anything to do with Obama or Obamacare. And there are pacifists who’re for Obamacare but aren’t at all happy with his war-mongering ways.

Further, I note that identifying with Obama through Obamacare is different simply from identifying with him. What’s the difference? More concretely, what other Obama stickers are available?

Now, bacon, as far as I can tell, has nothing whatever to do with Obamacare or the military. One might, however, suspect that a bacon lover is more likely to need Obamacare than a broccoli lover. Can you get a bumper sticker that says “I ♥ broccoli”? More generally, can you get one that is along the same semantic dimension as “I ♥ bacon” but has the opposite valence? What’s the difference between “I ♥ bacon” and, say, “I ♥ beef” or “I ♥ milk”?

And then there’s the Giants sticker. Intuitively I’d say it’s orthogonal to the others, more than that, it almost exists in a different semantic universe, the universe of sports teams in general and pro-football teams in particular. By that I mean that knowing of a person’s identification with the Giants won’t allow you to predict anything about their identification in the food/military/political space, and vice versa.

But I could easily be wrong about this.

What about physical placement? These four stickers were more or less evenly distributed over the rear of the tail-gate, suggesting that, as far as the owner is concerned, that’s all there is to it. There’s no need for a fifth or a sixth sticker. But some folks DO have five or six or more stickers, while others have only one or two, or none. What’s up with that?

Indeed, what’s up with THAT?

By which I mean, how does the brain calculate/intuit an identity from such information?


  1. I don't think there's an opposite to "I ♥ Bacon". You're either obsessed with it or you are not. Like the Giants. Bacon lovers write poetry like this:

    Roses are red.
    Bacon is too.
    Poetry's hard.

    1. Interesting.

      The thing about the sports space, it's not likely to be structured by (coherent) dimensions. To be sure there are traditional rivalries, but that's different. You can't, for example, put Army on one end and Navy on the other and then string all of college football in between.

  2. I thought the opposite of Bacon was Shakespeare.