The Color of Ribbons

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 television politics.

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 critique.

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 returning troops.

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.

About the Author: Phil Patton is the author of many books, including Autodesign International, Made in USA, Open Road and Dreamland. He writes regularly on automobile design for The New York Times and has been a contributing editor to I.D., Wired and Esquire. He teaches in the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts and has served as a curator for several museum shows, among them the Museum of Modern Art’s “Different Roads: Automobiles for a New Century.”