The smiley face, a yellow circle with two dot eyes and a curved line mouth, has meant many things to many people; but happiness, perhaps unsurprisingly, has not always been at its core. Throughout its disputed historical origins and even today, the smiley represents one thing only: merchandise.
Smiley wares have been hawked as badges of happiness, re-appropriated by counterculture as symbols of discontent, and are now enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to the machinations of a massive multinational "lifestyle brand" looking to crush the yellow ball's unlicensed global competitors and rewrite the history of the smiley entirely.
From a simple pin campaign to posi-wash a corporate merger in the 1960s, to the post-internet ubiquity of :) and smiling emojis, this is the history of the happy face that The Smiley Company doesn't want you to know.
Smithsonian Magazine published an investigation into the origins of the smiley face in 2013, its 50th anniversary, if one believes that Harvey Ball's smiley face, created in 1963, was the first depiction of the iconic, beady-eyed yellow fellow.
Ball was born in Worcester, MA, USA in 1921 and graduated from the Worcester Art Museum School before fighting in Okinawa during World War II. He returned from the war and established an advertising, public relations, and graphic design company in 1959. Four years later, in 1963, he was approached by Joy Young, the Assistant Director of Sales and Marketing for State Mutual Life Assurance Company. State Mutual had acquired another insurance company, and apparently the merger was chafing. He was commissioned to create a logo for a "friendship campaign" to boost company morale.
According to The Worcester Historical Museum, he drew a smile, but quickly realized it could also be turned upside-down to make a frown, and added two eyes to prevent inversion. The process took ten minutes, and Ball was paid $45 (approx. $370 today). In a 1996 interview with The Associated Press, Ball describes how he designed his version, which has the distinguishing features of a crooked mouth, cheek lines, and eyes of unequal size:
"I made a circle with a smile for a mouth on yellow paper, because it was sunshiny and bright... You can take a compass and draw a perfect circle and make two perfect eyes as neat as can be, or you can do it freehand and have some fun with it. Like I did," Ball said. "Give it character."
State Mutual then produced and distributed posters, signs, and thousands of buttons encouraging their employees to smile and be friendly to each other, and neither the insurance company nor Ball registered a trademark or copyright on the image. It wasn't until after 1999, when Ball created the World Smile Corporation and World Smile Day, that he received recognition for being the smiley face's creator.
Was Ball really first?
The oldest artifact with a smiley face on it was discovered in 2017 in an archaeological dig at the border of Turkey and Syria, where the Hittites had lived about 4,000 years ago. Turkish and Italian archeologists uncovered and reassembled a pitcher dating to 1700 B.C., which distinctly bears two eyes and a curved mouth as a painted decoration.
The next oldest smiley has been discovered in documents dating to 1635, drawn by a Slovakian lawyer, Jan Ladislaides, expressing his satisfaction with the documents he signed. Other historical hand-written emojis have been counted: a Czech monk in 1741 deployed one in his signature, and the Danish poet Johannes V. Jensen accompanied his letters with smiley and frowny faces in the year 1900.
There are a few other sources around at the same time as Ball who have also been given credit for originating the yellow smile in the United States: an ad for the film Lili in 1953, notepads from a Los Angeles ad agency in 1961, sweatshirts for New York's WMCA radio station in 1962, and a syndicated children's television show in 1963 called The Funny Company that used a smiley face in their logo and for their end titles with the message "Keep Smiling."
There is a principle in science called "multiple discovery," also known as "simultaneous invention," in which several independent parties reach the same breakthrough, invention, or innovation, simply because the conditions of their foundational knowledge or the techniques that have become available are ripe for this discovery. The same theory has been posited in art, and it appears that in the U.S. in the early 60s, the time was right for yellow smiley faces.
Mass marketing meets counter-culture
Charles Ball has said his father never regretted not trademarking his smiley face, but others who did saw huge profits off of their own merchandise and licensed products. In 1970, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, who owned Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia, copyrighted a slightly altered version of Ball's smiley face. The Spain brothers' smiley was symmetrical, and they added the slogans "Have a Happy Day" and "Have a Nice Day," which differentiated it enough from a run-of-the-mill unbranded smiley for them to commodify it.
The entire purpose of their smiley was merchandising, and the brothers produced coffee mugs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and of course buttons, which they sold more than 50 million of. Murray Spain has been quoted in the Telegraph, for a documentary about the proliferation of the smiley symbol, as being brazenly honest about the nature of their novelty item collection: "Our only desire was to make a buck... But when it became accepted as a symbol of happiness, we were thrilled." And make a buck they did: in 1973, they generated at least $1.5 million in revenue from smiley face and "Have a nice day,"-branded products.
Since the smiley was mass-produced, it turned up everywhere, even in places that weren't so suitable for smiles. One Vietnam war veteran, Doug Kibbey, who was a US tank commander in 1972, recalled wearing one on his helmet: "The little brother of a stateside girlfriend sent me this [a smiley sticker], and having seen every imaginable (and a few unimaginable) permutations of 'Bad-Ass' helmet designes, I decided this was perversely sinister enough for my oblique sense of humor."
Because of the over-saturation of smiley faces novelty goods in the U.S., and because such a simple symbol could so easily be perverted by context, the smiley face was quickly adopted and used ironically in counter-cultural movements throughout the 1970s and 80s. In 1972, it appeared on the cover of Mad magazine and DC comics created the creepy character of Boss Smiley, leader of an ultra-right wing in an issue of "Prez: The First Teen President" released in 1973. Another DC hit, "Watchmen," prominently featuring a blood-spattered smiley pin, would debut in 1986.
Throughout the 1970s, musical groups like the Talking Heads and the Dead Kennedys subverted the smiley face. The UK 12-inch cover of Talking Heads "Psycho Killer" referenced the original Ball smiley, while the dead Kennedys' release of California Über Alles replaced swastikas in a collage depicting a Nuremberg-style rally with grinning smiley faces. The juxtaposition of smiley faces with militant aesthetics would continue to be utilized by the graffiti artist Banksy in the early 2000s, replacing the faces of riot cops with smiling yellow balls.
In the 1980s, during what was called the Second Summer of Love, the smiley face became associated with rave culture, electronic dance music, and, of course, copious drug use. The subversion of the symbol became more common than its naïve usage, and after several deaths due to ecstasy use in the latter half of the decade, smiley merchandise was banned for a short time in the UK. The smiley was featured on the cover of a 1988 NME magazine being destroyed to symbolize the crackdown on psychedelic and party drugs.
After the boom and bust of the acid house scene in the UK in the 80s, the smiley skipped across the pond to festoon US-partygoers' gear as the early 90s rave scene took off there. A smiley face with Xs for eyes and a wobbly mouth, lifted from the Lusty Lady strip club in Seattle, became the symbol for Nirvana's "Flower Sniffin, Kitty Pettin, Baby Kissin Corporate Rock Whores" merch released in 1991, and the association of smiley faces with drug-taking, degeneracy, and proto-YOLO party mentality is still strong. Fatboy Slim (real name Norman Cook), still proudly sports a smiley face tattoo and has been collecting smiley faces symbolizing their association with music and drug culture for the last 20 years. In an interview with Red Bull, he explains his love for the symbol: "It’s never quite been in fashion, but it’s never quite gone out of fashion either. Every now and then some designer will take it on and try to make it fashionable, but it’s always been a bit goofy and stupid. It’s always a bit in fashion and always a bit out of fashion – a bit like my career, really." The 2007 Anna Farris film "Smiley Face," in which she eats all of her roommate's pot cupcakes and suffers through a series of misadventures due to being stoned, continues the tradition of associating the innocent smiley with excessive drug use.
The smiley face's unerring optimism has also been used as a symbol of horror. The Smiley Face Killer theory, which attempted to link together a series of murders from 1997 to 2008, based on a smiley face spray painted on nearby graffiti walls, was deemed by the Center for Homicide Research as unfounded, but has not stopped the internet from speculating that the smiley symbol could be a serial killer's calling card. The 2012 horror film, "Smiley," also played on the idea of the smiley face being appropriated by a bloodthirsty killer, who mutilates his own face to resemble the gaping eyes and slitted mouth of the icon, and murders teens who type "I did it for the lulz" three times, a pop-culture update to Bloody Mary.
The Smiley Company's alternative history
Around the same time that the Spain brothers were spreading smiley-mania through novelty items in the US in the early 1970s, a French journalist named Franklin Loufrani started using his own version of the smiley face to mark positive news stories in France Soir. He got a trademark on the smiley face in France in October 1971, and started licensing the smiley to other publications and manufacturers almost immediately. Within two years, he was getting paid by Levi Strauss and the Mars candy company, and by 1997, when he handed the family business over to his son, Nicolas Loufrani, The Smiley Company (also known as SmileyWorld) was raking in $100 million per year in licensing fees. The Smiley Company holds the license for smiley faces and many other derivative trademarked characters in more than 100 countries, including the Bic pen company in France and 7-Eleven stores in Asia.
But in the United States, Loufrani faced opposition when he attempted to file the trademark for Smiley clothes, stationary, mugs, bags, and toys. Walmart challenged SmileyWorld, fearing the trademark would infringe on their use of the smiley face in their "Rollback" pricing campaigns, which ran from 1990 to 2006. Although the terms of the agreement between Loufrani and Walmart have not been disclosed, Walmart did phase out their smiley mascot in 2006, only to have it return to advertise their deals 10 years later.
If it wasn't clear from the aggressive scale of the Smiley marketing operation, The Smiley Company is determined to become the one and only global purveyor of smiley faces, going so far as to ignore all of the history of the icon up to the point that it was trademarked in France. The "Infingements" page of the Smiley website claims that "Smiley is the original creator of Internet graphic emoticons since 1997 and licensed globally to over 800 companies since then... The Smiley Company not only protect our original logo, but also our icons and various characters. Smiley has the rights to 3000 emoticons."
In a 2017 interview with Vice, Nicolas Loufrani actually claims that emoijs were inspired by his smiley face designs. "I decided to change the logo to lots of different expressions to make it become more like a character expressing different emotions," Nicolas explains. "The first step was to design it in 3D, so I made it 3D. Then I started working on the emotions, lots of different emotions. I realised I could take it to different nations, just putting flags behind. I could do objects. I started doing different categories of Smiley. Lets do more of this. That became emoticons." He claims that The Smiley Dictionary published by The Smiley Company in 2001 was "the birth of a universal language," and laid the groundwork for emoji as we know it, although he is aware that somehow they simultaneously originated in Japan.
As Loufrani explains it, "[Emojis] are definitely inspired by our smileys. They are yellow faces. They have a more Kawaii, Japanese direction in the face, but they are inspired by what we do. They started around 2010, when Apple started to include emoji in the Unicode. It started getting used by a lot of internet platforms and then it became a huge phenomenon. A renewed phenomenon."
A simple search proves this is patently untrue, as well as the claim on The Smiley Company's history page that "the first Smiley appears on an Alcatel mobile in 1996." The first smiley face represented in ASCII text was written by Scott E. Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, in 1982, who suggested that ":-)" should be used to mark jokes. In October of 1992, the Unicode consortium included character U+263A, White Smiling Face (☺), and U+263B, Black Smiling Face (☻) in Version 1.0.0 of Unicode. It wasn't until 1998 that Shigetaka Kurita, of NTT Docomo in Japan, would release 176 symbols, including smiley faces, that would later evolve into emojis as we know them.
But clearly all of these developments in adapting the universally-recognized smiley face icon to screen text pre-dated and had nothing to do with The Smiley Company's licensing scheme, and it is pure ego for The Smiley Company to believe otherwise.
The Smiley brand in 2019 touts "The power of positive propaganda," and states it is "more than an icon, brand and lifestyle. We are a spirit and philosophy, a reminder of how powerful a smile can be." As a lifestyle brand, Smiley exemplifies global capitalism, and is even turning to Smiley surveillance technology in their "Smiley-O-Meter," web app. The Smiley-O-Meter requests webcam access, and then uses facial expression recognition to measure how much you are smiling as "Hilarious Moments" flash on the screen. At the end, they provide a heavily branded GIF of your own smile:
The smiley face: once an icon of happiness used to encourage disgruntled corporate employees to smile more, turned into a mass-market phenomenon, and now an aggressive multinationally-licensed "lifestyle brand." Regardless of whether you use :), ☺, or 🙂, know that the simple smiley is much more than meets the eye. Behind those two dots and curved line is a long history of a seemingly innocent symbol being appropriated and re-appropriated over and over, and it means whatever you want it to mean. :)