May 26, 2011

Sociological License Plates

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflinimage

I have a strange hobby. I take pictures of license plates that I find interesting. You’d probably call them personalized license plates, but I call them sociological license plates. What’s so personal about a license plate that you want everybody to see? A specialized license plate is kind of like a tattoo on your car. In my view, people customize license plates to communicate something about themselves. In that sense, I consider such license plates to be form of impression management.

For example, consider a license plate that says ICA BABY. Can you guess why someone would have this license plate? I took a picture of that license plate when  my wife was pregnant and we went for an ultrasound. This car belonged to the ultrasound technician. The license plate announces an important aspect of her identity. No doubt she is many things in life--a friend, a daughter, an American--but she chose to highlight her occupation and share it with society.

imageOnce when I was driving through my neighborhood, I saw a car with a plate that says 2 FLIRTY. Love it! For whatever reason, she wants people to know that she is flirtatious. Apparently, being flirty is a personality trait that is salient to her, so she uses her license plate to present that part of herself. I haven’t seen the driver of this car, so I can’t personally confirm the owner is a female. However, I once showed this picture to one of my classes, and a few weeks later a student said she happened to drive alongside the 2 FLIRTY car, and indeed the owner was a female. (I assumed  the owner would be female, but we can’t rely on our assumptions because they don’t always turn out to be accurate).2blessed

In one case I was able to conduct a brief interview with the owner of a car with a sociological license plate. I saw a car with the plate 2 BLSSD at a thruway rest stop while driving during a vacation. (Even on vacation, I can’t help but investigate the social world. I have a saying: “In sociology, there are no days off.”) The woman told me that the other car  owned by her family has a license plate that says BLSSD. So this woman and her family want everybody to know they are blessed with their lives. This license plate reminds me of something former professional athlete Deion Sanders once said: “I’m too blessed to be stressed!”

My favorite sociological license plate is one that says SUPRMAN1. That license plate belongs to a man who doesn’t lack image confidence. Rather, this man has a high opinion of himself! His giant vehicle is occasionally parked at a gym in my neighborhood. I’ve never seen him, but I sure hope he’s built like Superman. Otherwise, his license plate would be a fraudulent presentation of self! Here I feel safe in my assumption the owner is a male; otherwise it would probably read SUPRWOMN.

My last example offers great advice. During a stop at a video store, I saw a license plate that says JSTBEYOU. I love that advice, but it’s easier said than done if we keep in mind Kenneth Gergen’s book The Saturated Self. Because we play so many different roles and interact with so many people, we constantly receive feedback from people. All of this imageinformation, Gergen explains, can confuse our self-concept. As such, it’s hard to know who we really are in contemporary society. Is there such a thing as the “real you”? In any case, I appreciate the sentiment in this person’s license plate. The advice “just be you” encourages us to be authentic and not worry about what others think of us. To that I say cheers!

Well, I told you this is a strange hobby. What can I say? Some people like to hunt. Others bowl. Some like to cook. Others spend all day on Facebook. I’m a sociologist, so my hobby involves taking pictures of the social world that surrounds me.

Have you ever seen an interesting sociological license plate? If you have one, what is it and what does it say about you? If you don’t have one but had to choose a message for your license plate, what would it say and why?


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There used to be a guy who drove a late model cadillac, but he wasn't 65 years old. He was 25 and his Sociological license plate read "BAD HUH". Every time I saw it I chuckled to myself. Not because I thought it was funny, but that I thought the driver was so foolish to think anyone besides himself would think it amusing. After speaking to him it became obvious that he thought people were envious of his ride. This also made me chuckle

As an economist I like to watch money. One time I saw a man buying a cup of coffee. Love it! Apparently, this man enjoys coffee enough to exchange $1.50 for it. I did not see the man actually drink the coffee, so I can't personally confirm he likes coffee. However, I once showed a picture of the man to one of my classes, and a few weeks later a student said he happened to see the man at Starbucks, and indeed the man was drinking coffee. (I assumed he would drink coffee, but we can't rely on our assumptions because they don't always turn out to be accurate).

social good luck!

Reading this article I realize that you can find out many thing about a person just on reading their license plate or looking at their car. A car is like a second home to many and it's like a window to the soul.

As a young person who just got her license I love this sociological license plate article. My car is like a sanctuary to me. It represents who I am and where I am going.It is a window to my soul! I would love to have a license plate that says "GO CANES". That tells who I am and where I am going to fulfill my dreams.I want to graduate a semester early from high school to get to the University of Miami to begin playing soccer and to earn my degree.

A friend spotted a license tag that said "doc doc"...
no, not two doctors, but a "paradox"!

Very interesting hobby. I too enjoy personalized plates, but never have thought of a good one for me. A pediatrician I worked with had one that read VACCIN8.

I recently had to take a personality test for a sales position, and it had a strange question: do you have standard or vannity license plates? I found your article because I was searching for how sales apptitude and vanity plates might be linked. Several other "sales" questions were about self-promotion for business purposes, promoting yourself with friends or family, etc. and just basic questions about whether or not you are shy. So your article shed some light on why they would ask this question. Thank you!

I remember in the hey-day of the Camaro in the 80's a friend of mine had a vanity plate that read IROCNRLL for his customized fire-engine red Iroc Camaro. It was 1986 and everyone in my small town was envious of that car!

I've never considered getting a personalized license plate because you have them for so long. You can live to regret them--sort of like tattoos.

I like this stuff.

It helps to live in a small state if you're interested in getting a personalized license plate. I live in Vermont and can get practically anything I want.

The problem is that it's almost like getting a tattoo. Is that really what you want to say to the world ALL the time?

This is awesome. I like it.

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