Auto Emblems, Badges, & Decals – What’s the Difference?

At first glance, the words in the title of this article may all seem synonymous; that is, they may appear to be nothing more than three ways of saying the same thing. In truth, however, there are differences, albeit subtle ones.

In this article, I want to show you what those differences are, why they matter, and the criteria you ought to use when deciding whether to use auto emblems or something else for your car. These distinctions are important because each one sends a message about you to those who see it, and that may be very different from the one you intended.

What did these words mean originally?

So to begin with, let’s consider the original meanings of these words. Etymonline is a web site that does just that. According to them, the word emblem was derived from French and Greek, and referred to “inlaid ornamental work” that was “thrown in.” In this sense, it was symbolic of something else.

The word badge probably referred to emblem when it was first used in the 15th century. The word decal was not used until the early 20th century and is a shortened version of decalcomania or the French “decalcomania.” However, it referred to what was known in 18th century England as “transfer printing” – a process in which a design or drawing was transferred from paper to glass or porcelain in the kiln. The print was fixed to the object and when it was fired, the paper vanished, leaving the picture on the plate, vase, or bowl.

What do these words mean today?

The word decal is not found in Roget’s Thesaurus; but the word badge is, and here we discover that it can be used in three ways. The way that most of us are accustomed to is as a means to identify authority. So we have police or detective badges and military badges. Sometimes, we refer to the manner in which someone behaves as a badge of this profession or that profession: the badge of a servant, valet, groom or bailiff. Other times, we refer to a form of behavior, usually disreputable, that is the result of the opinions or feelings of others about us.

Emblem can also signify authority, but it’s much more common to think of it in terms of a representation of our ideas. In other words, it is a symbol of something that’s important to us.

Why does it matter?

I mentioned earlier that the distinctions between them were important because of the messages they gave to others. For example, in the case of auto emblems, the symbol says something about you as the driver. If it simply shows the name of the dealership where you bought the car, then anyone who likes it will know where they can get one, too. If it depicts a national flag, then everyone will know that you’re proud of your country. If it exhibits the venture logo of a particular group of athletes, then everyone will know that you support that team.

Badges, for the most part, are used to convey authority. On military bases, a general will have a license plate with the appropriate number of stars on it. In a parade, the Grand Marshal’s car will be designated in some way so that everyone knows that that automobile is his, hers, or theirs. A decal, can also be a badge as in those that are door-sized and affixed to the sides of police cars.

Auto emblems also say something about the economic strata from which the driver comes or aspires to. Popular auto emblems include a horse on its hind legs (Ferrari) and two capital Rs superimposed one on top of the other (Rolls Royce). Manufacturers use auto emblems to send a message about their professional logo design to their customers. One can hardly imagine them using a decal for this.

What’s your message?

What message do you want to send to others? Do you want to impress them, inspire them, cajole them? Do you want them to think more of you, less of you, or you don’t care? Your attitudes will determine your behaviour. The next time you go to your car, meander around it, and ask yourself: “What does it say about me?” “What auto emblems would tell people who I really am, or who I want to be?” There’s no time like the present.