There is no lack of reading material around here. We’re talking signs, some good and some bad. The good ones give us necessary information. The bad ones make us wonder about the human condition.
Highway signs are good. They give us notice when our exit is coming up and the legal, prevailing speed limit once we do.
Store windows tell us what we might find on the other side of the glass, and billboards alert us to roadside wonders like “the world’s largest popcorn ball.”
But the one place where signs should not appear is on us. Our bodies. The temples of our souls. We wear signs on every part of our anatomy, from our bodices to our back, our tootsies to the top of our noggins. All thanks to fashion designers and clothing manufacturers who sell us their wares. Many feature logos which turn us into walking advertising posters.
But do we care? Apparently, we are OK with being unpaid employees of a tax-free profit center? We’re OK with it, since we do it eagerly, happily, without pay, benefits or profit sharing.
We also use clothes to introduce ourselves to fellow humans. We tout our beloved sports teams, favorite players, vacation spots, bars and eateries. All bring us a feeling of status by telling all who “read us” that we are cool people who do cool things and go to cool places.
Just a note here. Wearing an “Eat Bertha’s Mussels” T-shirt will not turn us into gastronomic connoisseurs in the eyes of others.
Our bodies can be display space for inspirational affirmations, off-color jokes and eye-rolling commentary and stuff classified as too much information. Like the maternity dress seen on a very pregnant woman, embroidered with the unnecessary phrase, “baby onboard.”
We don’t see town-square soap-box speeches much anymore. They have been replaced by T-shirts that tell the world of our outrage-of-the-moment and which were once reserved for bumper stickers.
But voicing our thoughts on our cars went out of style as our country becomes angrier, more divided and the chance of a key dragged across the paint job or a rock smashing the windshield grew more likely.
Beyond clothing doubling as advertising, there are tattoos. We brand ourselves with anything we desire, at least at that moment, and done in indelible ink. These bad decisions are often made after drinking too much alcohol or experimenting with mind-altering substances.
Tattoos have trouble written all over them. Take movie star Angelina Jolie. Love made her tattoo her biceps with “Billy Bob” in honor of husband Billy Bob Thornton. That was back in 2000. The marriage lasted a scant two years. Later, she had Billy Bob’s name covered with the names of her children and the geographic birthplace coordinates of her new husband, Brad Pitt. We all know how that coupling ended. At least she didn’t burn his name into her flesh.
The willingness to brand ourselves probably began with the automobile industry with little works of art called hood ornaments. Collectors still pay big bucks for them.
Later, Detroit image makers began naming automobile models that offered the buyer a sense of glamor, status and coolness. Names like Acclaim, Gladiator, Raptor, Defender, Crown Victoria, Caprice and Lotus. They conjure visions of Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” or Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in “Thelma and Louise.”
Branding is not just the purview of automakers and fashion designers. As humans, we plant signs on ourselves all the time in an attempt to be distinctive.
Social scientists might trace self-branding to the beginning of Facebook and our eagerness to separate ourselves from the pack. The by-product has become over-sharing and look-at-me virtue signaling.
That’s it for this week. But before we go. Let’s take a step back to 1970, when a songwriter named Les Emmerson and the Five Man Electrical Band recorded a little ditty that went “sign, sign everywhere a sign blockin’ out the scenery breakin’ my mind …”
How about a new version dedicated to our love of self-signage: “signs signs everywhere a sign cluttering our bodies including our behinds …”