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Vanity License Plates and Identity Issues

September 13, 2009 by · 5 comments

By Ellie Ivanova Ponti



As I stopped by Leo’s workplace the other day, I noticed that almost 30% of the cars in the parking lot bore vanity license plates. That struck me as unusual – I think that among the general car population, vanity plates don’t exceed 5%. Are those car owners identity-challenged or, on the contrary, have especially loud identities? Who would want their license plate number to be so easy to remember while they are driving around committing traffic violations? And so badly that they would pay an annual fee for that? I started a little qualitative research.

Of course, cars are not just a means of transportation, as we know all too well; they are a way to exhibit personality and construct an identity. There are macho cars, feminine cars and even lesbian cars. Ethnic, social and regional diversity, too: there are Chinese ladies minivans, Russian mafia sports cars and Texan farmer trucks.

But the identity-building does not stop there. After you get your blank canvass, the new car, you still have to personalize it further through decoration: you state political positions or boast wisdom through bumper stickers; display your religious status through steel emblems like fish or two-legged creatures; borrow some prestige through your school affiliation decal.

And after that, you are free to give your self-creation a title: the license plate. You either agree to the random number assigned to you by the local Department of Public Safety or exercise your right to self-determination. If you choose the first, you acquiesce to the faceless, anonymous combination of digits and letters Lady Luck has given you. If you are prone to self-analysis, you maybe try to to decipher her message to you through searching for symbolism in the sequence on the license plate. You agree to be just a number on the streets and highways of this land. But if you are too proud to let fate define you, you pay the fee for what is rather unjustly called a “vanity” plate. But since when is self-determination called vanity? Isn’t the right to identity guaranteed in the Constitution?

That may be true, but it depends whether you see your car as an extension of your self and, as a consequence, of your identity. If so, then you are right to claim your license plate independence. People like that “wear” their cars while they drive them; the car is the visible outer shell wrapping their bodies that presents them to the world. Those who don’t see themselves umbilically connected to their cars don’t delegate their personal identification to it while on the road. They see themselves as simply located within their cars and distinct from them, not clothed in them.

Let’s see the data I gathered through casual observation. People are more likely to have a vanity plate for their cars if they:

are male
also own a motorcycle
work for a machine manufacturer and are machine-savvy
car is exotic, expensive or flamboyant

These are all features indicating a strong human-vehicle bond, in which the car owner takes a loving care of the car and has chosen it for the emotions he (or she!) derives from it. This confirms my hypothesis that vanity license plates are an indication of a self-image in which the car plays a particularly strong role, rather than just being a label for the existing self-image.

Still, many questions remain and must be the topic of further research. Is vanity plate use related to extrovert personality or to insecurity and fear to be left out with no voice? One would think that boisterous, exuberant people are more prone to asserting their personality in multiple ways, including vanity plates. However, it could also be that they don’t feel their other social interactions helpful enough for their personality be noticed, hence the need to compensate for the insufficiency.

Here are two more vanity plates – they are interesting, but don’t conform to the conclusions of my study. I am not worried, though, because they belong to vanity show cars, not “real” ones 🙂 And here is a more complete list of license plate curiosities.



You can read other articles by Ellie Ponti on her blog.

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