Michael Bierut | Essays

The Whole Damn Bus is Cheering

Stuck in horrible traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike last weekend, I didn't have much to look at other than the other slowly moving cars. Then I started noticing them, everywhere: those ribbon stickers.

While they come in different colors, the most popular is yellow. While they bear different messages, the most common is "Support Our Troops." And while the sentiments they espouse are noble, the design of these things is just plain awful.

The history of the yellow ribbon is sometimes traced back to a Civil War legend or a 1940s John Wayne movie, but for most of us it started with a 1973 pop song of excruciating banality: "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" by the ludicrous Tony Orlando and Dawn. Written by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown, the song combined a cloying, maddeningly unforgettable melody with lyrics no one would mistake for Cole Porter:

I'm coming home, I've done my time
And I have to know what is or isn't mine
If you received my letter
Telling you I'd soon be free
Then you'd know just what to do
If you still want me
If you still want me

Oh, tie a yellow ribbon
'Round the old oak tree
It's been three long years
Do you still want me
If I don't see a yellow ribbon
'Round the old oak tree
I'll stay on the bus, forget about us
Put the blame on me
If I don't see a yellow ribbon
'Round the old oak tree

Note that the first two lines don't even rhyme. The concluding stanza brings it all home:

Now the whole damn bus is cheering
And I can't believe I see...
A hundred yellow ribbons 'round the old, the old oak tree!

Particularly unnerving to me, along with the cheesiness of the fermata before the climactic line, was the implication that the narrator managed to tell "the whole damn bus" about the pre-arranged signal. I mean, shut up already. I also thought, as did most of my friends, that the singer was a newly-released prisoner, rather than a returning hero.

The 1980 capture of 52 American hostages in Iran provided the yellow ribbon with its first entree into mainstream culture. The ribbon, literally tied around trees, became a way of signaling support for the hostages and faith that they would be safely returned. The advent of the AIDS crisis in the mid 80s enabled the next transition, from literal ribbon to symbolic ribbon. Folded back upon itself and pinned to a lapel, the simple red ribbon was a grass roots creation, a wearable symbol of concern for the AIDS/HIV crisis and of solidarity with its victims. There was no "official" version, so anyone could make one. Then the folded-over-ribbon form got a further boost, and its final codification, when jewelry designer Margo Manhattan created the "official" red enamel ribbon lapel pin for AmFAR in 1991.

This basic form is the progenitor for the dozens of bewildering variations that have sprung up in recent years. Design Observer reader Chester has pointed out that there are now ribbons for and against virtually everything. Often, one colored ribbon can stand for (or against) several things. Green, for example, is connected to bone marrow donation, childhood depression, regular depression, "the environment," eye injury prevention, glaucoma, kidney cancer, kidney disease, kidney transplantation, leukemia, lyme disease, mental retardation, missing children, organ donation, tissue donation, and worker safety. Whew! If it helps, the alternate color for leukemia is orange, and the alternate color for missing children is yellow.

So comes, at last, the deluge: the transfiguration of the folded-over-ribbon into ubiquitous bumper sticker, coming full circle to serve as a signal of support, a heartfelt one to be sure, for American servicemen and women in Iraq and Afganistan. In my six-hour drive on Sunday (this was New York to Philly, with flooding on the Garden State and the NJ Turnpike closed south of Exit 4 due to "congestion," traffic fans) I saw dozens, if not hundreds, of them. There were a few pink ones (signifying concern about breast cancer, I hesitantly assume), more red, white and blue ones (general patriotism). But of course the overwhelming majority were yellow, just like the song. And the most common design? A doggedly literal drawing of that crossed and folded-over ribbon, enhanced with some crappy Photoshop effects straight out of the Hallmark cardboard birthday-party decoration playbook, squashed as flat as a pancake on the fender of every other Honda Odyssey and Lincoln Navigator. A metaphor? A symbol? Exactly! But just to make sure, let's add "Support Our Troops" in case anyone misses the point. And in a world of nearly infinite choices, what typeface would be better to signal our steadfastness than...what is that, anyway? Nuptial Script?

Graphic designers used to know how to develop beautiful, simple, universal symbols capable of rallying millions of people to a cause. Regardless of how you feel about this war, or about war in general, the men and women who fight deserve our support. They also deserve a better symbol.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Politics

Comments [41]

Beyond the aweful design of inumerable variations, to me, it seems that they are most often found on SUVs (the ribbons themselves seem too large for a small/regular-sized car).

It's also worth mentioning that they seem to be magnets, rather than stickers...
Jemma Gura

How I managed to use the word "seems" 3 times... *need coffee*
Jemma Gura

The NYT ran a short history and comment on the yellow ribbon magnet last month. Here's the link.

My personal favorite ribbon sighting involved two patriotic ribbons (one yellow, one RWB) on a gigantor SUV, cruising down the highway. They were framing the gas tank door; the irony astounded me.
Matt Kirkland

I believe it is incorrect to say that the AIDS crisis provided the second occasion for ribbons -- if I recall (I was 12 at the time), there was a series of murders in Atlanta that also got accorded ribbon treatment until the perpetrator was finally caught.

i don't want to get to political but if you say the troops deserve support you must, technically, also be including their commander in chief, and there begins the problem.
i found the throwing the old shoe idea in wag the dog more democratic anyway. as there is shoe ware for any taste the sneaker companies will get free market research and the support will cover hi and low.

Let us not forget the Ecology symbol, I had one on my sting-ray bike back in the day. I also remembered 25 years ago that there was a talk at school that the peace symbol really represented a crow's foot (the symbol of witchcraft?)—How naive to believe such nonsense.

Michael, in a 1958 article "Who Cares If You Listen?", composer Milton Babbit coined the phrase the whistling repertory of the man in the street. For me, yeller ribbons are part of our modern graphic "whistling" repertory — along with:
"Baby on Board" signs
bumper stickers
hanging Garfield dolls
"Hang in there, baby" posters
little red stripes on the heels of Prada shoes
trucker hats
et. al.

Such items are part of the visual ecology as folk songs are to the musical ecology. Bartok used Hungarian folk music in his work like Charles Anderson uses the vernacular. The whistling repertory offers context and a starting point for transformation and interpretation.

Are the ribbons ugly? Of course they are. But there are many more hideous item foisted upon the public which were created by "professionals":
Jessica Simpson album packages
Brittany Spears album packages
Insane Clown Posse album packages
Uggs boots
Michael Jackson's nose
et. al.

All these items and more are now fodder for our acts of mutability, recontextualization, parody and grace.
M Kingsley

(the ribbons themselves seem too large for a small/regular-sized car).

Oh, but that doesn't seem to stop them. I see them on little Honda Civics, taking over most of the rear of the car. I want the troops to return home safely as much as the next guy, but seriously... these things are driving me up the wall. Much in the same way the enormous american flag stickers on the tailgates of SUVs... I've seen some larger than an A4 sheet of paper. That's a bit excessive, no?

The ribbon also gets used sideways, as a sort of makeshift yellow ribbon/Jesus fish. I've been trying to roll out the beige ribbon for ribbon awareness.

I always thought people turned it sideways to make the text read horizontally. Shows my city-boy reasoning.

Of course, we could solve both problems by stacking the letters on the ribbon (joke!)
Derrick Schultz

Here in Indiana (a vermillion state) -- one is less surprised to find this kind of semi-patriotic kudzu. I wasn't sure if they were as popular on the godless East Coast...

Have y'all seen the ones with the curl of the ribbon manhandled into a valentine heart shape? (In defiance it seems, not only of Iraqi insurgency, but of the laws of physics as well!) Some also have the middle curl filled in with some sort of text. (Too small to read from a safe following distance...)

There are POW/MIA black ribbons. They are pretty ugly compared to the old white-on-black silhouette, though.

The horizontally placed ribbons drive my girlfriend nuts.

A local news channel here in CT did a story on how stores like Wal-mart who sell the ribbon for dirt cheap don't give the money directly to causes that support the troops (big surprise).

Troop-supporting groups that tried to sell the ribbon at local fairs and such were met by many people who said they could get it at Wal-mart for half the price.

"A metaphor? A symbol?" -- for what really?

These guys have a great parody of the ribbon magnets. If only it weren't even uglier than the original.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed that when placed sideways, these things look like the jesus fish.

I think this is just a fad (albeit a particularly ugly one) that will last another year. In the 80s, the "Baby on Board" signs were everywhere (and they were yellow, too). After a while, they pretty much disappeared -- it seemed like it was overnight. Did people stop caring about their kids? No. They just stopped making very vague statements about them on their cars.
Jonathan Hughes

Martin, you said:

"i don't want to get to political but if you say the troops deserve support you must, technically, also be including their commander in chief, and there begins the problem."

I agree: I designed my own and stuck it in my truck window... Remember there is another leg on that yellow ribbon, so mine says:

I support the troops (first leg of ribbon)
But not BUSH! (second leg of ribbon)

Oh, and I avoided Nuptial Script -- used Univers.

My local news recently ran a story about an area woman who had been selling magnetic ribbons to raise money for her son's army unit; she was complaining that her charity had been undercut by gas stations and Wal-Marts selling the ribbons only for profit. Wal-Mart responded that the ribbons found in the aisles were for profit only, however concerned customers could purchase the same ribbon (at a higher price) at the service desk for charity(!)
Andrew Shurtz

I could only fit about 6 ribbons on the back of my large family sedan, so to truly show support of the troops, i WAS a ribbon for Halloween.

i mean, all graphic designers know imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

(but i put a Kerry sticker on it, just so no one misconstrued)

Sentiment... or Propaganda?
Since the yellow ribbon is a very well known symbol, I find the extraneous addition of the words "Support Our Troops" more conspicuous. I like the use of yellow ribbons as a symbolic gesture, but the addition of a specific command to support pushes these bumper stickers into the realm of propaganda. No longer are these simply a gesture of support; the specific wording "Support Our Troops" implies that some readers might not already support the troops. Since the Iraq war dissenters have made clear that they support the troops, but not the decision to go to war, I think the message yellow ribbons would be better served without the text.
Patrice Hall

Does anyone else find it ironic that they are magnets? I mean, people are willing to support the troops, but not if it messes up the paint on their SUVs?

I totally agree with Patrice Hall that a symbol loses its symbolism if it tells you what it symbolises.

When I originally wrote to Michael about the profusion of ribbons, I had just seen a poster for prostate cancer awareness, and noticed that a blue ribbon is the symbol for that cause. Yellow ribbon, red ribbon, pink ribbon, black ribbon... I knew what those symbolised, (or thought I did,) but a blue ribbon?

So, I googled, and was amazed to find a few sites dedicated to awareness ribbons. This site presents an exhaustive list of awareness ribbons for purchase.

But watch out! As Michael pointed out, there are a lot of causes, and only a few colours. Prostate cancer awareness is simply "blue"; there is no Pantone reference. If you're aware of prostate cancer you're also aware of Graves Disease, Lymphedema, Scleroderma, Arthritis, and thyroid disease. Also, you're pro-choice, are against teen smoking and child abuse, for victim's rights and free speech, and want to Save The Music In Our Schools.

With so much symbolism loaded onto a simple piece of folded fabric, it's not surprising that clarification is deemed necessary. How do we know what the yellow ribbon magnet on your pickup is saying for you? Maybe you're trying to raise awareness for liver disease or spina bifida, or you're for equality, or against suicide. Or you're a Tony Orlando and Dawn fan. The only way to make your ribbon symbolise correctly is with words: Support Our Troops. In some completely inappropriate script typeface.

As for the impermanence of a magnetic "sticker"... You don't want to negatively affect the trade-in value of your pickup do you? Nor do you want to look like an ass driving around with a Support Our Troops sticker when the war is over. (Just think how foolish those people with Calvin-pissing-on-Osama stickers affixed to their trucks will look once we bring him to justice. Osama Bin Laden, that is; not Calvin.)

What I find ironic are drivers who put them on the side of their car, right next to the gasoline cap.

We Canadians don't have the proliferation of ribbons on our vehicles that the Americans do. We seem to do more flag-waving when we're abroad than we do at home.

Interestingly enough, I spotted a "Support Our Troops" yellow & RWB ribbon on the back of an SUV this morning, and I was humoured by the fact that it was actually fairly well done. Someone had put at least a little more effort into its design than the basic flat vector image that we're used to seeing. I had to smile.

Now I just wish I could get that damn song out of my head.
Andrew Montgomery

You can find a comprehensive list of ribbon campaigns here. Some of my favorites include the ribbon campaign for the use of proper language on the internet and the "Yahoo Sucks" ribbon.

I'm thinking maybe a Graphic Design Awareness ribbon? Huh? We're all designers here. We should be able to come up with something.
Nick Zdon

New ribbon alert! Today I saw an orange ribbon tied around a tree, along with a small poster explaining that the ribbon was there in support of democracy in Ukraine.

A thought about "Support Our Troops": It seems to me that this wording has been carefully chosen to be nonpartisan and to focus on the "grunts" who have been sent into harm's way; the ribbons don't say "Support Our Military".

And what about the lack of a subject in the phrase? "Support Our Troops" sounds less like a statement and more like a command. The implication is that the driver of a vehicle to which this message is affixed supports our troops, and those without don't.

In any event... Congratulations to Ukrainian Democracy lovers, they join the following orange ribbon causes: Cultural Diversity, Hunger Awareness, Leukemia Awareness, Lupus Awareness, Melanoma Awareness, Racial Tolerance, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome, and Self Injury.

From Nicholas Kristof's editorial in yesterday's New York Times: "Here's a suggestion for President Bush from the protesters behind the democratic 'orange revolution' here: Wear an orange tie.

"'If he wore an orange tie, people here would be crying,' said Yuri Maluta, a protester from Lviv. 'It would show that the American president supports democracy here.'"
Michael Bierut

Ah but which symbolic knot should he use? The Four in Hand, the Pratt, Half- or Full-Windsor ...? My vote goes for the hangman's knot.
marian bantjes

I'm just cracking up over here! There are NO RIBBONS here in Germany, but there sure are A LOT of AMERICAN TROOPS stationed here. I'm originally from Canada -- asides from the very many pink ( breast cancer) and red ribbons people toted around in Toronto last time I was there, I can heartily agree with Andrew that one just doesn't see a lot of yellow ribbons in Canada... actually we don't really pay much attention to our military either... But I tell ya, it is a strange feeling as a Canuck walking around town, being in a European country and being surrounded by American troops or having American military planes fly very closely past your head. oh and by the way, that isn't Nuptial script ... Nuptial isn't as bad... which script type that actually is...not quite sure...could be Shelley Allegro, could be Kuenstler script...

Thats really interesting: colored ribbons that hold "so much meaning" to some people in the U.S. are simply a really bad fashion statement abroad. Ha!

Oh, and I'm pretty sure the script is Edwardian Script by Ed Benguiat.
Lenny Naar

I'm so glad this topic was brought up! I recently went home for Thanksgiving in the Midwest which is the land of ribbons. I made a comment about how gaudy and unnecessarily large the ribbons were. I received a very stern "We support our troops" from a relative. Had no one else found humor in people with small cars trying to fit four ribbons on the back side of their car? As if that made them more patriotic than the next person?

First off, that font is a horrible choice...

I think the strongest point you make is that everyone supports the troops. No one's out there saying they wish the troops to die horrible deaths or anything stupid like that...it's like having a bumper sticker (*cough* magnet *cough*) that says "I support music" or "I support air"...

well duh.
Jesse J. Anderson

I think I'd like to make a sticket that says:

"Support Our Troupes"

Just to piss people off. I live in Dallas and every other vehicle has a ribbon magnet on it. My favorite is the camo one. That's right, someone is making the same "support our troops" sticker, but with a camoflage pattern on it, instead of being yellow.

disgust is an understatement.

Faahhget about the vernacular wasteland of bumpers lined in traffic. It will seem like old hat before we know it. I predict the new battle of what M. Kingsley calls "visual ecology" will be on our own bodies. Sure there are always tattoos, but nothing could be more appropriate for our disposable culture like an accessory for social awareness.

I do want to point out that it started of as a simple, powerful statement: live strong. The bright yellow molded plastic, the debossed type—a beautiful object representing a worthy cause. But at the merciless sway of a culture obsessed with image, it has become the look du jour. I can image that a cancer survivor, or the loved ones of a survivor (or victim) must get a great sense of support when they see a flash of yellow on a strangers wrist, but like any media (and perhaps message), it looses it's power after over use and abuse.

We here it is. Live strong 2.0. "Share Beauty. Spread Hope." I think the sentiment is great, but how long before we get what Michael was talking about with the ribbons. Green means 10 different things, red a half dozen. The thing about the AIDS ribbon is that it became a symbol for supporting a cause, not necessarily doing anything about it. Celebrities and wannabes could feel smug and politically aware, without really making a difference.

There seems to be something suspiciously PCUish about all these a la carté and social causes. Today it's prostate cancer, tomorrow it's protesting baby seal pelts. Here, here for the beige ribbon concept. Perhaps that could translate into a band design. I'll support the cause. Here's what I want: a black band to morn the sorry state of the finer points of typographic detail and refinment. Isn't "my" cause as worthy as any other?
N. Silas Munro

Has anyone else noticed folks mounting the magnets sideways? (like a fish) I guess to some the design is more legible and right reading then if the ribbons were mounted with the loop up top.
Steve Mock

I realize I am getting in this conversation a bit late. I have posted some of my own thoughts and photos on Be A Design Group about this very subject. Most of what I had to say was already mentioned in this post, but I thought everyone might be interested in the photos that I took in one small parking lot. It demonstrates how horribly these ribbons were designed. I would like to recommend The Design of Everyday Things for the creator of these ribbons. Most of the ribbons that I have seen for sale are from Cause Keepers. Beware. It is only going to get worse.
Bennett Holzworth

Does anyone else agree that the "LIVE STRONG" bracelets are also going down the same path? I saw a man wearing the bright yellow bracelet with a dashing suit on the other day. I bought one to support the cause but am I wrong in saying sometimes it just doesnt go with my outfit?

Another weak worm in microsoft Word
trumped designers' attempts to make pretty matter.

We fickle feel better buying "support",
though dollar to vendor makes his bus cheer.

Buy paper, pen, and stamp instead,
show pretty "support" overseas in a letter.

I have just been sent an article for a fashion magazine I design...the subject?

The ripping-off of Lance Armstrong bands.

The popularity and wait for this product has created a rubber bracelet craze. Not only in yellow, but pink for breast cancer, red for AIDS, army green to support our troops, and any other color you can think of. These bracelets not only feature encouraging words but on some websites, you can actually personalize them with your name, your own quote, or even your astrological sign. But doesn't personalization defeat the whole purpose of awareness? Spotted on eBay, many are starting to believe these once inspirational bracelets are purely an over produced trend now.

"I know they are popular, but you shouldn't buy the live strong bracelets on eBay. There are people who are selling them for $5 to $10 each are taking the profit for themselves when it should be going to charity. It's just not right," says Lindsay a Westbury, NY resident.
Written by Kirsten Jones for Fifth Avenue Magazine
Derrick Schultz

No other than Garry Trudeau touches on this subject this morning. Not to mention this story from the Times about yet another rubber wristband.

How long before we start seeing rubber bracelet-shaped magnetic "stickers" affixed to the backs of SUVs? Wait! Nobody move; that's my idea. Step off.

Is there a specific color ribbon for an abstinence message- promoting sexual purity until marriage?
Leisa Bishop

"The Problem: Dwain Gullion hit a chord with his magnetic yellow ribbons. But can he turn a patriotic fad into a real business?"

This Inc magazine article presents some background on the company that brought those ribbons to market and some vexing questions on how he should proceed. Perhaps some design experts wish to offer him some advice.
Linda Tabeling

I would like to make a comment. The first yellow ribbon magnet was created in the state of North Carolina by the company Magnet America to help FRG groups and military groups send packages to the troops. Just because you choose not to support the ribbon doesn't mean the people who do are doing some fad. We have seen many service men and women who have thanked us for the support we gave and the money we gave to help their families and other causes. Please remember that every time you write stuff like this it doesen't help our troops in any way but causes more complaining. Stop whining and do something.

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