The world's most ubiquitous toon.


Original medium: Advertising
Shilling for: State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America
First Appeared: 1963
Creator: Harvey Ball
If this site is enjoyable or useful to you,
Please contribute to its necessary financial support. or PayPal

Superstars of the toon world include Hagar the Horrible, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Archie, Popeye, Batman, Donald Duck, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

continued below

… and so forth. But if they're superstars, which is about as high as the Q-ratings go, then what do you call Smiley Face? He's instantly recognizable to probably more people, in every corner of the planet, than all of those guys put together.

Public impression dates Smiley Face to the early 1970s or so, which is about when he and his famous slogan, "Have a nice day", seemed to rise out of the ground and take over the world. If people thought about it, they'd know that somewhere, some time, someone must have drawn him for the first time, but who cares? Smiley is what he is — the ubiquitous icon of either beaming, unmixed joy, or vapid, mindless bliss (depending on your outlook on life).

Actually, he goes back to December, 1963, when State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America, located in Worcester, MA, was facing employee morale problems in the wake of an unpopular merger. The company hired Harvey R. Ball, a local graphic designer, to come up with an image for an in-house button campaign to do nothing except encourage people to smile. Ball took a plain disc the color of sunshine, drew a curved line to suggest smiling, then added dots for eyes so no wags wanting to hold their grudges would turn it upside-down. The process took about ten minutes (not counting the work of rendering it profesionally, ready to print), and he billed the company $45.

Easy to draw, pleasant to look at and unhampered by language barriers (or anything else that involves thought processes getting in the way of the obvious message), Smiley quickly passed from employees to their friends, and from there into practically all media of communication. By the time either State Mutual or Harvey Ball thought of sewing up rights, he'd long since passed into the public domain. In fact, he'd become modern-day folklore.

(This didn't prevent people claiming exclusive rights — in 1971, French entrepreneur Franklin Loufrani, claiming to have created Smiley in 1968, registered a trademark on him that is still honored in several countries.)

Smiley's big break came in December, 1970, when Bernard and Murray Spain, Philadelphia-based brothers who worked in fad exploitation, were looking for something with the iconic appeal of the Peace Symbol but, the Vietnam War still claiming supporters, less divisive. They decided on Smiley, whom they marketed in the form of buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers, stationery, coffee cups, etc. etc. etc. His slogan was still a little archaic (their version was "have a happy day"), but still, they managed to sell about 50 million Smiley Face buttons, to say nothing of the other stuff, by 1972. The fad died down right around then, but not before Smiley had been permanently burned into the public consciousness.

Since then, Smiley has been practically everywhere. Variants, such as a frowning version and one with vampire fangs, abound. He's been adapted into text form on the Internet, where a colon followed by a close-parenthesis (":)") is supposed to represent him, seen sideways — and there are endless variations on that, too. He's gone back into advertising, such as the current Wal-Mart campaign. He's been used in conjunction with other toons, such as Prez's Boss Smiley, Evil Ernie's talking chest ornament, villains in Howard the Duck and a unifying image in DC Comics' Watchmen. He bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the TV toon Jot. There are those who maintain Pac-Man is merely Smiley Face's profile.

On October 1, 1999, the U.S. Postal Service conferred upon Smiley Face an honor it had previously given to Charlie Brown, Daffy Duck and a few other toon superstars — it put him on a stamp. Harvey Ball, reportedly undismayed by not having capitalized on his brainchild, took the occasion to declare World Smile Day. Tho he died in 2001, World Smile Day is still celebrated on the first Friday of October.

Pure happiness of the sort represented by Smiley Face is, of course, unavailable to humans this side of the grave. But with his creator now eligible for it, Smiley continues — and, his appeal not restricted by time any more than by geographic location, will no doubt do so for a great many years to come.


BACK to Don Markstein's Toonopedia™ Home Page
Today in Toons: Every day's an anniversary!


This site is a member of WebRing.
To browse visit Here.


Purchase Toon-related Merchandise Online

Text ©2005 Donald D. Markstein. Art: Smiley Face is in the public domain.