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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Buttons, Posters Are Media, Too

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

I just received a wonderful catalog in the mail. It's a catalog of buttons, posters, and bumper stickers (mostly "progressive" and often funny). And I realized (perhaps for the first time in 25 years) that these things,too, are a kind of medium of communication.

After all, media literacy is the ability to analyze, access, evaluate and produce messages in a VARIETY of forms. And posters, buttons, and bumperstickers DO communicate -- often more succinctly and memorably than paragraphs upon paragraphs of writing.

I'm sure that most of you can remember particularly striking posters (perhaps from your teenage years) which seemed to capture and transmit an ideology, an idea, or an impression of who you were and what you believed in. I'm talking here about posters of something other than rock stars or pin-upmodels (although they, too seemed to transmit a message).

Posters in World War II helped rally our countrymen to enlist, to ration, and to keep tight lips in support of a war. In the 60's, the famous poster which showed a flower and read "War is not healthy for children and other living things " transmitted basically an anti-war political message with such simplicity and innocence that it became ubiquitous during the Vietnam era. In George Orwell's 1984, huge posters of Big Brother (with eyes that seem to follow you around) adorn inside and outside walls alike. No doubt about it: a "simple" poster can be an important communication vehicle.

Buttons are somehow both more personal and more subtle. They're worn on the body of the person making the "statement." But they're also (relatively) small. Descended from political campaign buttons, these mini-personal statements at first just offered a word or two or a symbol. Peace, re-cycling, and the American flag were very popular, and each communicate ddirectly, personally, and unmistakably Now, of course, the terminally rude can buy (or have made) buttons which say nearly anything. The rudest ones can't be printed here.

As the popularity of buttons increased (again, during the 60's and70's), bizarre or funny or just off-the-wall ones started to appear. Somewere still designed to make a political or personal statement ("Gay Pride,""Save the whales"), but others were intended just for a laugh ("Nuke the gaywhales," "Support your right to arm bears.").

There used to be a time, too, when it was the rare car that had no bumper sticker. When and why our society decided to use bumper stickers on transportation devices to express our feelings is something for academics to discuss and debate, but you all remember. The stickers started with those travel stickers you got at tourist traps or with candidates' names, but these too soon turned topical, then serious, then funny, then rude. War protesters and America-firsters seemed to have a virtual dialogue going on for a while there. "America - Love It or Leave It" was very big in its time.

And speaking personally, I'm really torn between the urge to adorn my vehicle with semi-funny, semi-serious statements ("Jesus is coming -- look busy," or "Question Reality," or even "Friends don't let friends vote Republican") and the realization that there might be places I travel or park where such sentiments would not be viewed charitably.

We also need to realize that it's dangerous to try to express a philosophy or a position or an argument with a button or a bumper sticker. These mini-media messages work best if they're expressed in seven words or less and are easily remembered. Most ideas, however, (at least those worthy of being called ideas) cannot be expressed in seven words. Our national discourse should not take place on the bumpers of our cars (nor on our coatlapels).

Still, they ARE fun. And they DO communicate -- even if what they communicate is irreverence ("Subvert the dominant paradigm," "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain") or even just a sense of whimsy ("Ignore alien orders,""Decaf is the anti-Christ," "Only users lose drugs").

So I may just buy a poster that says: "I don't care if he's dead. I still want to impeach Nixon." Or a button that reads: "Cleverly disguised asa responsible adult." Or a bumper sticker which proclaims: "I love my country but fear my government."

They're only partially true, and they certainly don't convey all of my political or personal attitudes. Just some of them.

They are a public way for each of us to make a personal statement. And they are media which communicate effectively (and often with a smile). And you can't beat that.

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.