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Dec 2004 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

Tie A Yellow (Pink/Orange/Red/Camo) Ribbon 'Round the SUV
By Amanda E. Doyle

I've gotten kind of used to seeing them everyone, but I have to admit, this one threw me: a magnetic bumper ribbon, half yellow and half stars-and-stripes, with black scripty lettering over the yellow part that read, "Please keep my wife safe." Was the SUV driver a husband with abusive tendencies who wanted the rest of us to keep a close eye? After a few seconds of pondering I concluded that the driver's wife is a soldier, somewhere, and that the plea was directed at...well, God, I guess, or some equally high-ranking officer.

I've never been much of a bumper sticker person, for much the same reason that I've never gotten a tattoo: how do you decide? I mean, if you're choosing to narrow down the wide collective of experiences and causes and priorities that are "you," how could you stop at just "These colors don't run" or "visualize whirled peas" or a lone Tweety Bird? And at the same time, if there really are a few things that are just that important to you, it seems like a bit of a cheapening stroke to reduce it to a few mass-produced words on vinyl.

God Bless America The explosion of magnetic car ribbons — proclaiming pride in everything from supporting our troops to surviving cancer — has the curious effect of simultaneously causing a surge in solidarity and awareness and an absolute diminishing rate of return in emotional resonance and effectiveness. One truck bumper I saw recently sported a standard yellow "Support Our Troops," a camouflage "Bring 'Em Back Safe," and a red ribbon...that read "Go Cards!" Lining these sentiments up roughly parallel on one's bumper implies a troubling level of moral equivalency that can really have you wondering about your fellow man on the morning commute.

Far less troubling, but equally fascinating to me, is the diminished buzz factor that attends the newest roll-out of symbol for all but the first person to the idea: whoever made that first yellow magnetic ribbon touched a nerve in the popular consciousness, and generated a true cultural meme. The twelfth guy, whose ribbon is for, say, the 5-a-day fruit campaign (it could be multicolored! Or would that mean support for gays and lesbians?), is decidedly less likely to be hailed as a king of symbolic innovation.

Witness the yellow bracelet phenomenon: when the Lance Armstrong Foundation rolled out those silicone bracelets emblazoned with the "LIVE STRONG" tagline, early adopters forked over a buck (for cancer research) and got a bracelet. Both presidential candidates wore them, along with countless other people in the spotlight and out of it; the craze quickly had the bracelets on backorder through "official" channels, but savvy mercenaries listed them on E-bay and found them selling for upwards of $20 each. According to a story in the Hartford Courant, bracelets now exist for causes as far flung as ovarian cancer (teal), bullying (blue) and tort reform (lime green). A local boy had an idea for orange bracelets for juvenile diabetes research.

Of course all of these causes are worthy ones, and of course advocates for those issues should use every means at their disposal to increase awareness. But when ribbon magnets could be for deadly disease or pro baseball, how long will it be before we all tune out, awash in symbols that mean everything, and nothing?

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