Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Messages that stick

When searching for a soul, common wisdom would encourage a long gaze into the window of the eyes, perhaps a chat with a priest.

But with the customized self-expression being sold by a couple of New Mexico companies, torsos and car bumpers might be a better place to look for someone’s inner self.

Using the power of the Internet, Sticker Junkie and T-Shirt King have created booming online businesses that allow people to slap just about anything onto 8.5-by-1.5-inch stickers and cotton T-shirts.

Though the messages range from mundane to meditative, the selling of wearable and stickable signposts of the spirit have meant good money – and the occasional good laugh – for the businesses doing it.

Stuck on you

“Everybody has something they want to promote or say,” said Andrea Lake, owner of Sticker Junkie (www.stickerjunkie.com), a customized sticker-selling business in Santa Fe. “I love them all. Even the people that are saying really, really outrageous stuff, it’s really nice that they have a medium to do it in.”

Lake’s company started in 2002 after repeated requests from customers of one of her other businesses – a clothing company – to put messages on stickers.

“Finally, so many kids were asking me, I was like, `Yeah, you know what: I can do that,’ ” she said.

In Sticker Junkie’s first year, more than 350,000 black-and-white stickers were sold using its online design form that allows customers to type in whatever text they want and add graphics.

In 2003, about 725,000 stickers sold, and in 2004, 1.2 million. Lake expects to sell more than 2 million stickers in 2005, and revenues are projected to be around $1 million. Sticker prices start at $25 for 100.

She once received orders within minutes of each other from a band that plays speed metal and from a Boy Scout troop.

“I just said, ‘Oh my God, we have a winner! Anybody can use this!’ ” Lake said with a laugh.

She partially attributes the success to how easy it is for customers to design their stickers on the company’s Web site.

“We have 150 graphics to choose from. We have 100 different fonts. And all the stickers can be made from those,” she said. “It’s quick on every end, and it allows us to keep our costs low.”

She’d like Sticker Junkie to be a household-name company selling 50 million to 100 million stickers a year, and she says human nature is on her side to help make it happen.

“I do know that people are never going to stop having opinions,” she said, “and they’re never going to want to stop expressing them.”

Poly-cotton pontificating

Plying one’s personality can also be as easy as pulling on a shirt, especially when it is made to order from companies such as T-Shirt King in Mountainair (www.t-shirtking.com).

Though T-Shirt King President Bill Broadbent has been selling T-shirts since the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1998 that he experimented with an online store. By 2000, he had gone fully online, and in January the company began offering custom T-shirts.

“The Internet has changed a lot,” he said. “The customers are getting better.”

From 1998 to about 2002, Broadbent said sales doubled. And while the past few years have been slower, he said, the growth is still “substantial.” Revenue in 2004 was in the millions, and he expects 30 percent to 40 percent growth in 2005. Customized T-shirts start at $4 to $9, depending on the quantity ordered, and can cost more with additional colors and designs.

He said one trend in customized T-shirts is people making shirts for annual events, such as birthdays.

“They kind of create a little group of collectors within their own community,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve seen grow and grow.”

There are also memorial T-shirts, which typically have the picture of a person killed in an accident next to the name and the years the victim lived.

And the 2004 election brought a deluge of poly-cotton pontificating, Broadbent said. A couple of the more popular slogans across the T-shirts were, “Might as well vote Republican, they’ll say you did anyway” and “Friends don’t let friends vote Democrat.”

“This election was a lot stronger in the political memorabilia,” Broadbent said. “We’re kind of bummed the elections are over.”

A soul inside the machine

Though the ease and speed with which people can express themselves in sticker and cloth might be new, the motivations behind it are not, said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

“It’s a very primal desire to be recognized, to have what you think and what you are acknowledged by those around you,” Thompson said. “In the United States, it’s especially obvious . . . you’re not simply identified as marriageable or interesting by virtue of your birth. You’ve got to constantly be selling it.”

And when all it takes to design one’s own stickable or wearable billboard is a few clicks at a Web site, the temptation to cover one’s car or oneself with personal advertisements becomes even more irresistible, he said.

“The technology just makes it so easy now,” Thompson said. “In some ways, it’s actually quite charming.”

For example, he said, imagine a traffic jam without bumper stickers, such as “My schnauzer is smarter than your honors student.”

“The bumper stickers announce that inside those faceless, soulless assembly-line generated machines, spewing out exhaust and all the rest of it, there are in fact living, breathing human beings with opinions, likes, dislikes, attitudes and personalities,” he said. “These bumper stickers announce there’s a soul inside that machine.”

It is, Thompson said, the survival of the self in a country where marketing is king.

“What individuals are doing with T-shirts or with bumper stickers is essentially what advertisers are doing every day,” he said. “In many ways, it’s to sell themselves.”

‘Good’s Gonna Happen’

Today’s world, Sahra Indio says, has an overabundance of gloom and doom.

Rather than sit and complain, the Hawaiian artist and reggae vocalist made a song and album titled: “Good’s Gonna Happen.”

“When everything on the news is kind of depressing, we need somebody carrying an optimistic banner,” she said. “This song says don’t give up . . . good’s gonna happen.”

She said the inspiration for the song is her husband, whom she credits with bringing love back into her life at a time when she had given up on finding it.

Indio used Sticker Junkie to put her message on stickers that she said are showing up on cars, bicycles, mailboxes and even her vacuum cleaner.

She got the idea to do stickers from a 13-year-old fan in Los Angeles. The girl saw another sticker she found offensive and thought the name of Indio’s song and the words could change people’s day for the better.

The message seems to be taking. Indio ordered 100 stickers from Sticker Junkie the first time, which were “gone like that,” she said. Her second order was for 200 stickers, she said, and now she orders about 500 at a time every couple of months.

“I like it best on cars, because they get around,” Indio said. “You sit at a light and you get to contemplate, ‘Good’s Gonna Happen.’

“Stickers can go so many places. Everybody loves stickers.”

SIDEBAR

MEMORABLE MOTTOS

The points made on T-shirts and stickers can be downright offensive or spiritually uplifting, or it can convey any other sentiment that might strike someone’s fancy. Here are a few notables from Sticker Junkie (www.stickerjunkie.com) and T-Shirt King (www.t-shirtking.com):

“John Kerry eats babies . . . Just kidding, vote for Bush”

(“We would have taken ‘George Bush eats babies’ too,” Andrea Lake, owner of Sticker Junkie, said with a laugh. “We are totally nonpartisan.”)

“TV is gooder than books”

“late as usual”

“Might as well vote Republican, they’ll say you did anyway”

“Friends don’t let friends vote Democrat”

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