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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2005

Wearing your heart on your wheels

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
FEA cars12p 2 A POW/MIA magnet on a Volkswagen Beetle. The Blade/Lori King FEA cars12p 2 A POW/MIA magnet on a Volkswagen Beetle. The Blade/Lori King
KING / BLADE Enlarge

Those magnetic ribbons stuck on cars in support of U.S. troops and just about everything else are so popular these days that even thieves want in on the full-fledged fad.

At least, that s Deborah Norton s conclusion. The North Toledo resident has a camouflaged ribbon on the back of her minivan, but it s not her first.

I had one earlier Pray for our Troops and somebody stole it, she said.

And while Ms. Norton bought the ribbons while thinking of three relatives in the military, she worries that other people s station wagons are becoming mere bandwagons.

I just wonder what s in their heart. Do they have it on there because everyone does it ... or because they care? she asked.

The craze that started with the best of intentions has become big business.

It began in North Carolina with a man named Dwain Gullion, who dreamed up the yellow ribbon-shaped magnets in 2003 and started marketing them as a way to show support for U.S. armed forces and for fund-raisers.

Those initial 1,000 magnets quickly exploded into more than a million and gave rise to the company Magnet America. The idea, according to a company spokesman, was to show support for troops and not any particular political ideology or figure, though some say displaying the ribbons could be seen as tacit approval of government policy.

It wasn t really a political statement that we were trying to make, said Chris Hales, customer relations manager. We don t care who you support. The bottom line is these are real people. They re defending our freedom.

Success breeds imitation, however, and that has been bad for business. Cheaper foreign knockoffs have flooded drug stores and retail outlets and hurt domestic producers like Magnet America, which now has about half the employees it once did, he said.

And while Magnet America and some other retailers donate a portion of the money raised by the magnets to military support organizations, that's not always the case. Buyers may want to look for a sign or make inquiries to make sure their money is helping more than just capitalism.

Auto magnets have gone beyond the traditional yellow ribbon style. Auto magnets have gone beyond the traditional yellow ribbon style.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

The future of this trend likely is a rainbow of colors. Already the traditional yellow ribbon magnets have been supplemented by other colors for patriotism, including camouflage and red, white, and blue. There are ribbons for other causes too: pink for breast cancer awareness, multi-colored puzzle shapes for autism, and others for diabetes awareness and firefighters.

"I got one for Christmas that has paw prints for animal rescue. If there's an issue out there, the idea is the ribbon shape has become a sort of all-purpose signifier," said Jack Santino, a professor of folklore and popular culture at Bowling Green State University who has written on ritual, celebration, and public display.

The concept of wearing something for a loved one who is far away is hundreds of years old, he said, but the widespread connection to a yellow ribbon in America goes back to 1979 and the Iran hostage crisis. That's when Penne Laingen, whose husband was among the hostages, was inspired by the Tony Orlando and Dawn song, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" to do just that.

The practice was rejuvenated during the Gulf War in the early 1990s and more recently with the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Adapting the symbol to a magnet on a car was a natural progression, Mr. Santino said, since it is a personal space that gets a lot of public exposure.

It also comes with some complications for car care, at least potentially. Mr. Hales, who has about 10 magnets on the back of his Honda, said people should move them frequently and make sure the surface is clean before they put them on so that potentially harmful dirt and moisture aren't trapped underneath where they might hurt the car's finish.

It should be no surprise that the fad is sticking around, according to Mindy Kirby, of South Toledo, an assistant manager at Rite Aid, where patriotic magnetic ribbons are sold near the check-out counters.

"I think it's just because it's something different," she said. "It's a way to show your support over those flags [that attach to car windows]."

Ms. Kirby has a pink magnet on her Ford Escape to support breast cancer awareness.

"I know a lot of people that actually survived," she said.

And, she added with a smile, a yellow ribbon wouldn't go with her yellow SUV.

For her part, Ms. Norton has pledged to keep her ribbon magnet on her van until every U.S. soldier comes home.

"Unless," she said, "somebody steals it."

Contact Ryan E. Smith at: ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.



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