Everything one needs to know about the “support our troops” movement, the one in which members of the cause adorn tailgates and trunk lids with yellow ribbon-shaped magnets, can be gleaned from the parking lots of America’s red, white and blue megastores.
The trend didn’t stick nearly as well as the magnets.
“People got bored,” said Donna Bremer, her grandchildren loading groceries into her white minivan outside the Spokane Valley Wal-Mart. “It’s old news, but it shouldn’t be.”
In a packed parking lot the size of two football fields, the 60-something grandmother’s car is one of only four displaying magnetic ribbons from the dying trend. Four years ago when Bremer applied the two magnets to her trunk lid, their statements of “God Bless the USA” and “Support Our Troops” read like directives from the patriotic high ground. Today, they could almost be pleas.
Troop magnets were white-hot commodities when they landed on gas station counters across America in 2003. The Iraq war was on. With no draft pressing America’s sons into military service and no rationing on the home front, the war quickly became the first years-long conflict in American history to require only tax dollars from the U.S. citizenry.
But for $4.99 and a little bumper space, average Joes could let it be known they’d placed their sympathies in the collection basket of social conscience as well. That’s all Dwain Gullion wanted when he introduced America to yellow ribbon magnets.
A stakeholder in a family-owned chain of four Christian bookstores in North Carolina, Gullion had stumbled across a company that created the magnets thinking people might want them in light of a yellow ribbon shortage that hit American craft stores after the start of the Iraq war.
The company, King International of tiny King, N.C., sold Gullion a thousand magnets, which he began marketing by word of mouth. Quickly realizing he was on to something, Gullion went back, bought the rights to the product, and started selling them in bulk to local convenience stores. The public responded like goldfish given a whole can of food.
“Believe it or not, a lot of people didn’t know where to get them,” said Micah Pattisall, operations director for Gullion-owned Magnet America. “We had people in North Carolina buying them online.”
Once the magnets were fully deployed, they couldn’t be missed. They sold well everywhere, but especially in communities, such as Spokane, with military bases, Pattisall said. The operations director recalled driving through a neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y., and seeing in every driveway a car with a ribbon magnet on its bumper. By August 2004, Magnet America was selling 1.2 million “support our troops” magnets a month, but that’s when sales peaked.
“We sell a few thousand a month now,” said Pattisall, who gives several reasons for the decline. “It can’t be denied that the nation’s attitude about the war has changed and that for some folks, they believed the magnets were created to support (President) Bush.”
Maybe the magnets took on partisan connotations on the streets of America, but that’s not how they left the factory, Pattisall said. The company really wanted to support the troops.
Many magnets were given away or sold at a discount to grass-roots organizations set up to help families of soldiers dodging bullets and roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At a time when the magnets were selling for $5 each, those organizations were able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in no time, Pattisall said.
But beyond politics, magnet sales slid because the magnets were a trend and trends don’t last forever.
“At this point, you’re talking about something that’s four years old,” Pattisall said. “The question I’d like to ask is when’s the last time you played with a Slinky?”
But not everyone with a ribbon magnet was playing around. Bremer, who lives in Medical Lake, bought her magnets after her grandson, Army Sgt. Eddie Bremer, was deployed to Iraq. Eddie’s lungs were permanently damaged in a chemical fire there. Seventy percent disabled, he’s been home now for a year and a half. His wife has since enlisted.
Bremer’s magnets are sticking around.