The smiley, the yellow circle with a smile and two stylized eyes, is one of the most widespread and well-known symbols in the world, managed for a few decades by a company that controls its use in over 100 countries and has an annual value of about 500 generates million dollars.
While it’s hard to imagine inventing a symbol that’s actually a stylized smile, the smiley face is considered a 20th-century invention, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and having disappeared from an insurance agency since it existed until the rave of the Eighties, from a Philadelphia letterhead to the pages of a French newspaper, from the seventies counterculture to hundreds of mass culture consumer products.
All this despite a general consensus that the first person to draw the smiley face in its modern form, much as we know it today, was an advertising designer in 1963 – more than 50 years ago – who made a total of $50. A graphic designer unrelated to The Smiley Company, the London-based company that manages the brand and run by someone who, when entrusted to him, didn’t know what to do with it, and who interviewed with The Hustle said she recalled that moment: “I wasn’t happy about it, I found it old and pathetic, something that’s a thing of the past now.”
– Also read: Because we see things that aren’t there
The inventor of the modern smiley is considered to be Harvey Ross Ball, born in Massachusetts in 1921. After studying art, he fought in the Battle of Okinawa south of Japan in World War II. In 1959 he opened a small advertising and PR agency and created the smiley there in 1963.
He came up with it because the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America, an insurance company that was merging with another, was concerned about the mood of its employees and wanted something cheerful. As he later said, it took him ten minutes to create this yellow circle with the oval eyes and the big smile. He asked for 45 dollars, which would be the equivalent of several hundred euros today. This smiley was very similar to today’s, but it had thinner eyes and a slightly less stylized and slightly asymmetrical smile.
The company used the smiley face on posters and other miscellaneous items, but there have not been great reviews of how well it worked in boosting employee morale. Apparently more out of disinterest than forgetfulness, however, Ball did not register this trademark. That allowed those who wanted to use it and exploit it commercially. In 1971, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, among others, became managers of a stationery store in Philadelphia. The brothers added the more didactic slogan “Have a Happy Day” to an image very similar to Ball’s, and began adding lettering and images to various products.
However, as late as 1971, in France, on the pages of the newspaper France, at the suggestion of the French journalist and creative Franklin Loufrani, a smiley similar to that of Bell and consequently that of the Spanish brothers -Soir, was used, in one of those initiatives where certain newspapers of the time at times suggest posting the good news on the sites. In 1972, Loufrani registered the trademark for commercial use, probably recognizing the possible non-journalistic uses of this symbol.
The Hustle wrote that to spread the Loufrani logo, it had 10 million stickers with the smiley face printed and distributed free of charge, primarily among youth and students protesting on the French May 1968 wave: “This carefree joy succeeded and ended there the bumpers of cars across the country ».
This is how the first companies interested in joining this successful brand arrived. The first was Mars in 1974, who printed the smiley on their Bonitos, round chocolates. Then came Levi’s and an ever longer and more diverse list of companies.
In the meantime, however, the smiley has continued to be used and, if necessary, adapted by various subcultures: In particular, it was adopted by the rave culture that emerged in England in the 1980s. Thousands of young people began to congregate almost everywhere to dance days and nights to house and techno music and consume massive amounts of a new synthetic drug, ecstasy. The smiling face has been well linked to its effects, which include a great passion for music and an increase in empathy and sociability: so much so that the smiley ended up being printed, as well as on stickers and t-shirts, even on the MDMA Pads themselves. . Shortly thereafter, however, Kurt Cobain also drew a version of it, making it one of the symbols of Nirvana.
In short, the smiley was used spontaneously, but then somehow Loufrani managed to capitalize on the phenomenon without worrying too much about inconsistencies due to a symbol that became associated with many things, sometimes in antithesis to each other. “While other licensees fought hard for tight control of their logos, Loufrani released the smiley face to ride the waves of cultural movements,” The Hustle wrote.
In the second half of the 1990s – while others have since invented the symbol elsewhere 🙂 – the smiley started to show signs of wear. Loufrani therefore decided to leave the management of activities related to the logo to his 26-year-old son Nicolas, who saw this symbol as something “ancient and miserable that is now a thing of the past”.
However, Nicolas Loufrani nevertheless tried to deal with it, first of all giving more structure and coherence to the activities related to this logo, which did not have the same name all over the world and, above all, had no company behind it. Nicolas Loufrani then founded the Smiley Company and dedicated himself to acquiring the commercial rights for the worldwide use of this brand. Where he could pick it up, he picked it up; where it was already taken, he tried to buy it; where he could not buy it, he attempted to claim ownership through legal channels.
Loufrani also acted to rejuvenate the logo, altering it in various ways in a rather dangerous move, risking distorting it and losing its identity: “It was against all marketing theory,” he told The Hustle: “If You have created a logo no other ».
Among other things, Loufrani also took care of making this logo three-dimensional and managing what could have become on the web. In 1999, The Smiley Company did something very similar to what we know today as emoticons or emojis, and in the early 2000s they contracted with Nokia and Samsung to use them on their devices. In addition, The Smiley Company has relaunched trade deals for games, products and apparel featuring the smiley. “Nicolas Loufrani,” wrote Smithsonian Magazine, “took over the family business and turned it into an empire.”
Even today, at the age of 76, Franklin Loufrani, together with Nicolas, runs part of the business of the London-based company, which, as Zachary Crockett wrote in The Hustle, has around 40 employees working in offices with “drawn smileys”. on the walls, smiley pillows on the sofas, smiley backpack, smiley t-shirts, smiley toys, smiley chocolates and even smiley chicken nuggets ». The Smiley Company now has deals with Nutella, McDonald’s, Nivea and Coca-Cola, among others. It varies a lot from country to country and product to product, but generally if there’s a smiley face on something and the person who put it there pays for the rights attached to it, a portion of the proceeds (sometimes up to 10 percent) to smiley companies.
Over the years, the company has also had to deal with various disputes and legal issues with those who, from time to time, tried to create their own version of the smiley, or in other cases claimed to have invented it first. In the United States, there was litigation between the Smiley Company (which attempted to claim rights to the logo in 1997 after Nicolas Loufrani was at the helm of the company) and supermarket chain Walmart, which had registered its version of the logo in 1996 It ended after years and millions of dollars in a private agreement between the parties.
When Bell died in 2001 at the age of 79, the New York Times called him “the strongest defender of the smiley face invention”. In an interview with Telegram & Gazette, his son spoke of him as a person who was “not interested in money”. In 2006, in an interview with the New York Times, Franklin Loufrani said of the invention of the smiley face: “It is likely that a man who drew it in a cave invented it in prehistoric times, but I was the first who registered the trademark and when we speak of commercial exploitation, that counts ». Loufrani also disparaged the character 🙂 said it was “just punctuation” while his son compared it to Hello Kitty, but added that he felt there was a big difference: “Unlike Hello Kitty, we have a clear mission, the smiley face is the sign of happiness”.
– Also read: The invention of the shopping cart
Perhaps the smiley’s success also lies in the fact that it is a synthetic and, above all, flexible symbol that can be used for very different uses and contexts. Dave Gibbons, cartoonist who drew Watchmen – in which the often bloody smiley face is a recurring image – said: “It’s a yellow box with three markers on it, it couldn’t be easier until it’s empty. It therefore awaits meanings: if you put it in a nursery, it will suit us well; but you can also put it on the gas mask of a police officer in riot gear and make something completely different out of it.