Everyone knows the smiley face: the egg-yolk circle, the black oblong eyes, the curved grin. It has pervaded pop culture since the 1960s, when hippies stickered it onto VW buses and screened it onto tie-dyed T-shirts. It guest-starred in the 1994 movie “Forrest Gump,” when the titular character “invented” the sunny symbol. Generation-Xers will recall its ominpresence during the 1990s on everything from Joe Boxer underwear to raver backpacks; a dark version on Nirvana T-shirts replaced the eyes with Xs and added a subversive wobbliness to the grin.
Today, the Smiley face is everywhere on textiles, puzzles, party goods, stationery, automobile accessories, backpacks, exercise balls, chocolates and toys for licensed brand partners and retailers. Even smiley chicken nuggets. This simple icon has retained relevancy through 50 years of cultural movements, from free love to raves to the digital revolution.
The Smiley Company in England is a family owned brand licensing company that holds the rights to smiley face symbols in over 100 countries (notably not including the United States). The company is considered one of the top 100 licensing companies in the world with a staff of 40 and revenues over $500 million a year.
In 1963, a Massachusetts-based freelance artist named Harvey Ball received a call from a company that needed to lift employee morale. He spent 10 minutes to produce his famous solution: A bright yellow circle with black oval eyes and a creased smile. For his work, he was paid a one-time fee of $45 ($376 in 2019 dollars). This was modern history’s first “smiley face.”
Crude versions of the simple design have since been found painted on 4,000-year-old Turkish pottery, engraved in medieval stones, and scribbled in 19th-century letters. Ball’s iteration struck a chord, ushering the smiley into mainstream American culture. Others followed. In Philadelphia, two Hallmark card shop owners printed it on buttons, along with the phrase, “Have a Nice Day.” They sold 50 million of them during the height of the Vietnam War. Ball’s simple illustration was worth millions of dollars but he never filed a trademark.
In Paris, Franklin Loufrani had his own stroke of invention. Loufrani had foregone college but he was a “marketing guy who was always coming up with new stuff.” In 1971, while working for the paper France-Soir, he decided to design a symbol to alert readers to positive stories. His creation, a smiling yellow face, was like Ball’s and unlike Ball, he immediately secured a French trademark.
He set out to license his new icon. In the ‘70s, France was emerging from a counter-cultural movement where students were rejecting moral strictures, embracing free love, and leaning into a sexual revolution. Loufrani printed 10 million smiley stickers and handed them out free. The icon was soon plastered on car bumpers all over the country. Then brands came knocking.
Loufrani secured a deal with the candy company Mars, which printed the smiley face on its chocolates. Other big licensees were soon to follow: Levi’s rolled out smiley-emblazoned jeans; Agfa Film packaged its film in smiley-branded boxes; stationery retailers pumped out smiley journals, notebooks, and pencils.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the smiley was adopted by a new generation of ecstasy-fueled ravers. Early electro DJs like Danny Rampling used the logo on fliers for parties, so Loufrani reached out to DJs and hit the clubs, selling t-shirts and buttons. Simultaneously, this new market drove licensing deals with trendy apparel companies.
By 1996, licensing deals were down, and the logo was fading. Loufrani’s son formed The Smiley Company and secured trademarks for the ‘smiley’ brand name in 100 countries. In countries where it was taken, they bought it, or battled the owner in court (including a famous, 10-year legal battle with Walmart in the US).
Then he made major updates to the old-school smiley face, morphing it to a 3D orb. He rode the rise of the internet and mobile technology. He rolled out more than 470 iterations —the first-ever set of portrait-orientation emoticons. Soon, tech companies like Apple and Microsoft come out with their own sets of proprietary emojis, but smiley was cool again working with companies like Nutella, Clinique, McDonald’s, Nivea, Coca-Cola, VW, Dunkin’ Donuts and more than 300 licensees. across 12 major categories.
Did Loufrani simply take another man’s creation and made it popular? Harvey Ball, the true father of the smiley passed away in 2001, at the age of 79 having only earned his original $45 payment. As they say in the classics…that’s business.
Pablo Picasso did a smiley emoji. It looked like a mother superior, the minister of finance, a washing machine, and the Eiffel tower