BOB GARFIELD: The idea of license plates as a medium does not end with pre-packaged sloganeering. Until blogs first appeared, these plates were probably the nation's number one venue for self expression, permitting, for example, every VW Cabriolet driver in the country to personalize her tags with some variant of "Q T PI." It's a uniquely American phenomenon we first explored on this program five years ago. The other day I was stuck in traffic in northern Virginia where I live, and in front of me was a car with the following license plate: B-U-T-T-H-D. Ah, Virginia is for lovers, nobody ever said anything about self esteem. For me though, this was an epiphany. The Internet may well be a tool of mass expression, but it certainly isn't unprecedented. Reading: L-O-A-N-W-U-F.
MAN: Loan Wuf. I'm a senior loan officer for Browner Mortgage here in Fairfax.
BOB GARFIELD: Fleeks, fly-kits--
MAN: Fly kites
BOB GARFIELD: Fly kites, you do?
BOB GARFIELD: But why do you want everybody else to know?
MAN: I go to a lot of kite festivals.
WOMAN: We got caught up into it and thought, “hey, why not?” So I got "Big Red" and my husband got "Big Mac."
BOB GARFIELD: Vanity Plates! Long before there was an Internet, there was an interstate net of license tag message boards as analog as can be.
BOB GARFIELD: H-A-R-T-A-A-U.
MAN: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD: Heart of Gold, right?
MAN: Heart of Gold.
BOB GARFIELD: What's it all about?
MAN: Well, I was actually inspired by the “Hitchhiker's Guide” series, Zaphod Beeblebrox and his Starship Heart of Gold.
BOB GARFIELD: And you, this is something you think the rest of the world should know.
MAN: Oh, absolutely! I am Zaphod Beeblebrox.
BOB GARFIELD: And I am really scared right now.
BOB GARFIELD: Names, initials, job descriptions, hobbies. You literally name it. Virginia has 781,000 vanity plates active at the moment, representing more than 12 percent of vehicle registrations.
ERIC KRAFT: And that's about the highest in the country.
BOB GARFIELD: University of Richmond economics professor Eric Kraft says Virginia may or may not be more autobiographical than other states, but it's certainly cheaper. The nominal 10-dollar added fee, he says, drives the business.
ERIC KRAFT: Well, there's still millions of dollars involved, so I wouldn't call it trivial.
BOB GARFIELD: Anyway, the money isn't trivial. There's also the question of - subject matter. Commissioner of Motor Vehicles Rick Hokum.
COMMISSIONER RICK HOKUM: I love just riding down the road and looking at plates and trying to figure out something about that person, maybe where did they go to school, when did they graduate, what's their profession? You know, what sports team do they root for?
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, and what kind of car they drive. A stunningly common vanity plate concept is to document the make of the vehicle bolted to the license tag. My Benz, My Jag, My BMW, My God, My Kia. And motorists will go to all sorts of tortured lengths where the correct spellings have been snapped up, to phonetically approximate the sound, like K-R-V-T for Corvette. [CLICKING OF COMPUTER KEYS] Virginians can use the DMV website to experiment with letter combinations and order online. Jamie Haybecker of the Department's Web Services Division shows off this message generator.
JAMIE HAYBECKER: Once they've found one that is available, it'll tell them, "Congratulations, the message you've requested is available," or it will tell them that it's not available and they can try another combination.
BOB GARFIELD: For instance, UGLY is taken. I-M-E-Z is taken. ROOFUS, DOOFUS and GOOFUS are all taken, although I am pleased to report that YEAST, FELON, and GUM DZS are all wide open. Job references, of course, are very popular. BUTCHER and BAKER, for instance. FOOTDOC, EYEDOC, KIDDOC, and naturally D-D-S are long gone. The profession to have if you want to exploit unspoken for obviousness is accounting! AUDIT, for example, is available. UR TAXS is available. W-2-4-U, inexplicably, is available. [CLICKING, COMPUTER KEYS]
BOB GARFIELD: Type into there, for me please, lifo, L-I-F-O
WOMAN: Last in, first out. Message is available.
BOB GARFIELD: What does it say to you about the state of creativity among Commonwealth of Virginia accountants that LIFO and FIFO -- [WOMAN LAUGHING] --are both available?
WOMAN: Maybe they're just not a terribly imaginative group.
BOB GARFIELD: Precisely! Like the worldwide web it pre dated, the vanity plate universe, and not just the accounting part of it, is mainly a vast wasteland of the shockingly unimaginative, the un-clever and the excruciatingly banal. That is, except when the challenge is to be truly vile at 60 miles per hour. Here, creativity blooms. For example, the plate T-I-H-S-O seems innocuous, until it is spied in your rear view mirror. Oh, my! Needless to say - as you work that one out in your mind's eye - the state takes a dim view of objectionable material. Vanity plate messages are speech, they are not necessarily protected speech. Commissioner Hokum.
COMMISSIONER RICK HOKUM: I do not believe the plate to be a First Amendment forum. It is state property. I guess I would look at a license plate much the same way as the U.S. Post Office will look at a stamp.
BOB GARFIELD: Right. And stamps are imprinted with flags and flowers and the Virgin Mary and Elvis, not the words Lick Me. So LICK ME and POOP ON YOU and I'M A HO and much, much, much worse are on a list of the 6,000-plus words you cannot say on your G.T. And the list grows every day, as state employees actually conjugate vulgarities to anticipate subsequent distasteful permutations. But look, there is licentious license behavior and there is romance. Consider Professor Eric Kraft, the economist.
PROFESSOR ERIC KRAFT: My first vanity plate from about five years ago is S-V-E-V.
BOB GARFIELD: That, as you know, is an erotic Scandinavian folk dance.
PROFESSOR ERIC KRAFT: Since there aren't a whole lot of Scandinavians down here in Richmond, I thought I would sort of put something Swedish or Norwegian on my plate and see if anyone might come tap my window or stop by sometime when I was or wave at me.
BOB GARFIELD: Were you trying to pick up women, with SVEV?
PROFESSOR ERIC KRAFT: Well, I'm trying to actually catch anyone's interest who has an [LAUGHS] interest in Swedish folk dance and, and culture.
BOB GARFIELD: And if that person were a Nordic goddess, so much the better.
PROFESSOR ERIC KRAFT: Well that would be fine. [AMBIENT SOUND/VIRGINIA MOTOR VEHICLE BUREAU]
BOB GARFIELD: Could you just read that back to me, so I know I have it, the plate number?
WOMAN: The plate number? It'll be W 2 space with the logo in the middle, 4 U.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, that's perfect. Thank you.
WOMAN: Mm-hmm. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anni Katz and Mark Phillips. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. Brooke is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield. [THEME MUSIC TAG]