The sun has faded many of them into unreadable
pastels, those first yellow and red and blue magnetic car ribbons
urging us to support our troops and God to bless our nation. They
already belong in the Bush-era time capsule.
But as graphic design, the succession of the first basic ribbon models
by those varying sentiments and causes serves as an index of national
opinion far more subtle than its banal shape and words might suggest.
A North Carolina Christian bookstore owner named Dwain Gullion created
the first basic "support our troops" ribbon in March 2003, just as the
invasion of Iraq began. Magnetic car attachments make sense because
bumper stickers have been in decline for a while now, probably thanks to
vinyl bumpers whose paint is vulnerable to their removal. The magnetic
ribbons offer the advantage of easy placement on the metal of the car. A
take off, of course, from the lapel ribbons offered by such causes as
AIDS and breast cancer awareness.
The magnets became more common than actual yellow ribbons in lapels. But sales of the magnets, through Guillon's website Magnet America,
caught on in earnest only when the war effort bogged down. By the
summer of 2004, Magnet America was selling as many as 100,000 ribbons a
week. By then, the meaning had shifted. Supporting the troops and
supporting the war was a distinction on which one can argue the Kerry
campaign ran afoul. Voting to oppose the war, then to fund the war
effort presented logic too subtle for either car bumpers or as it turned
What at first seemed a common, hard to object to, if ultimately banal
sentiment shifted to become a highly politicized prowar slogan. But the
response was not simple opposition-there a few "End the War Now"
ribbons. A blue "Support Peace" ribbon is a gentle admonition, rendered
in lettering like a teacher's patient chalk hand, not a strident
Instead, in a graphic parable of the process by which mass sentiment
concentrates and then dissipates, all sorts of new varieties of ribbons
have appeared. The ribbons are a virtual gallery of distraction and
even perhaps disillusion. They mark not the triumph of the opposition to
the war but the crumbling of its support, as reflected in polls.
Variations and copies of the originals grew up quickly, driven by
commerce. The first magnets were U.S. made; most are now from China.
Magnet America found its prices undercut by imported competition.
For graphic designers, however, the lessons are also subtle. Unlike the
"love it or leave it" flags of the 1960s or the plays on the automotive
fish (especially that variant that became Darwinian with the witty
addition of amphibian feet) in the 1990s, the magnets did not play out
their messages in outright opposition.
There were few "End the war now" ribbons to respond to the yellow
pro-war ribbons. Nor was there room for "Support our troops-deploy them
in adequate numbers, as advised by our best generals, and not in the on
the cheap formations ordered by a pugnacious secretary of defense."
For the graphic artist, what is of interest is the surprising
flexibility of the ribbon format. The banality of the sentiments also
took on a certain individuality in the style of display. Militant
neatniks offered up martial formations of evenly spaced, carefully lined
up ribbons. More ebullient or stylish types tilt the ribbons at 45
degrees or slot them sideways. The freethinking casuals mix original
eight inchers with mini ribbons in collagist accident.
The original yellow ribbon motif possesses echoes as distant as John Wayne's 1949 western "Tie a Yellow Ribbon."
The yellow ribbon as welcoming symbol began of course in the song "Tie A
Yellow Ribbon" by Tony Orlando and Dawn. The song was based on a real
episode involving a petty criminal. The yellow ribbon welcomed returning
Iran hostages and soon by extension came to symbolize welcome for all
After the first play of variations on stars and stripes, capitalism gave
us service specific models of the ribbons, along with other
patterns-camouflage, say-and other slogans like "freedom isn't free."
Once the effectiveness of the medium was proven other messages grabbed
on to it. Breast cancer pink joined the red, white and blue and a puzzle
pattern plea for research into autism. A black ribbon popular with
bikers and blue-collar workers urges us to recall POWs/MIAs. The late
Pope is memorialized in one model and the spaying and neutering of stray
dogs and cats in another.
Then came the inevitable reactions: "Support Our Troops - Bring Them
Home Now," for instance, with its 60s echoes and the more cynical "I
support Chinese magnet makers." The website Support Our Ribbons offers magnets displaying messages such as "Support Our Ribbons," "I Support More Troops Than You. Or see AntiMagnet.
We now seem to be down to local causes: I've seen labor unions and
police support groups of late. Magnet America, the original, also now
offers a support teachers ribbon.
And you can make your own. Silkscreening magnetic sheeting can be done
at Kinko's these days, although most commercial models appear to be
manufactured in China.
What have we missed? So many, no doubt. Please send them in.
Sprout is the first event in a 4-part series that brings together diverse members of the design, nonprofit, and social impact communities in partnership to use design thinking and sustainable frameworks to address today's community challenges.
Section: Events and Competitions
Designer, Artist, and Animator Todd St. John
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