The business of the smiley – Il Post

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The smiley, the yellow circle with a smile and two stylized eyes, is one of the most widespread and recognized symbols in the world, for some decades managed by a company that controls its uses in over 100 countries, generating an annual value of about 500 million dollars.

Although it is difficult to think that you can to invent a symbol that is in fact a stylized smile, the smiley is considered a twentieth-century invention, which this year celebrated its first 50 years and which since its existence has gone from an insurance agency to the raves of the Eighties, from a Philadelphia stationery to the pages of a French newspaper, from the counterculture of the seventies to hundreds of consumerist products of mass culture.

All this despite a general consensus that the first to draw the smiley in its modern form, similar to how we know it now, was in 1963 – more than 50 years ago – an advertising designer who made a total of $ 50. A graphic designer that has nothing to do with the Smiley Company, the London company that manages the brand and which is managed by someone who, when entrusted to him, did not know what to do with it and who was interviewed by The Hustle he said, remembering that moment: “I wasn’t happy about it, I thought it was old and miserable, something that was now a thing of the past.”

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The inventor of the modern smiley is considered to be Harvey Ross Ball, who was born in Massachusetts in 1921 and who after studying art during the Second World War fought in the Battle of Okinawa, south of Japan. In 1959 he had opened a small advertising and public relations agency and it was there that, in 1963, he created the smiley.

He came up with it because the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America, one insurance company that was merging with another, was worried about the mood of the employees, and wanted something cheerful. According to what he later recounted, it took him ten minutes to create that yellow circle with oval eyes and a broad smile. In exchange he asked for 45 dollars, which today would correspond to a few hundred euros. That smiley was very similar to the one generally found today, but it had thinner eyes and a slightly less stylized and slightly asymmetrical smile.

Ball and his smiley (NTB PLUSS AP Photo / Paul Connors)

The company used the smiley on posters and other miscellaneous items, but there are no great reports of how well it worked in raising employee morale. Apparently more out of disinterest than forgetfulness, Ball did not register that trademark. Which allowed those who wanted to use it and exploit it commercially. In 1971, among others, the brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, managers of a stationery shop in Philadelphia. The brothers added the rather didactic slogan “Have a Happy Day” to an image quite similar to Ball’s and began putting lettering and images on various products.

Still in 1971, however, in France, a smiley similar to Bell’s, and consequently to that of the Spain brothers, began to be used – on the proposal of the French journalist and creative Franklin Loufrani – on the pages of the newspaper. France-Soir, in one of those initiatives in which, from time to time, certain newspapers propose to report the good news on the pages. In 1972, probably sensing the possible extra-journalistic uses of that symbol, Loufrani registered the trademark for commercial use.

The Hustle wrote that to spread the Loufrani logo he had 10 million stickers depicting the smiley printed and distributed free of charge, especially among young people and students protesting on the wave of the French May 1968: “that carefree joy was successful and ended up stuck on bumpers of cars all over the country ».

So the first companies interested in joining that successful brand arrived. The first, back in 1974, was Mars, who printed the smiley on his Bonitos, round chocolate candies. Then followed Levi’s and an increasingly long and varied list of companies.

Meanwhile, however, the smiley continued to be used and if necessary adapted by different subcultures: in particular it was adopted by the rave culture, which was born in the Eighties in England. Thousands of young people began to congregate almost everywhere for whole days and nights spent dancing to house and techno music, consuming copious amounts of a new synthetic drug, ecstasy. The smiling face was well associated with 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 after, however, Kurt Cobain also drew a version of it, who made it one of the symbols of Nirvana.

In short, the smiley began to be used spontaneously, but then Loufrani somehow managed to capitalize on the phenomenon, without caring too much about any inconsistencies due to a symbol that was being associated with many things, sometimes in antithesis to each other. ‘other. “While other licensees fought hard for strict control of their logos, Loufrani left the smiley free to ride the waves of cultural movements,” he wrote. The Hustle.

In the second half of the nineties – while in the meantime others, elsewhere, they invented the symbol ???? – the smiley began to show signs of wear. Loufrani therefore decided to leave the leadership of the activities related to the logo to Nicolas, his twenty-six year old son, the one who thought of that symbol as something “old and miserable, which was now the past”.

Nicolas Loufrani, however, tried to deal with it anyway, first of all by giving greater structure and coherence to the activities linked to that logo, which did not have the same name all over the world and, above all, did not have a company behind it. Nicolas Loufrani then founded the Smiley Company and dedicated himself to acquiring the commercial rights for the exploitation of that brand around the world. Where he could record it, he recorded it; where he was already taken, he tried to buy it; where he could not buy it he tried to claim the property through legal channels.

Loufrani also acted to rejuvenate the logo and, with a rather dangerous move, to transform it in various ways, thus risking distorting it and making it lose its identity: “it was against any marketing theory” he told The Hustle: «If you have a logo you don’t create different ones».

Among other things, Loufrani also took care of making that logo three-dimensional and managing what could have become on the internet. In 1999, the Smiley Company did something very similar to what we know today as emoticons or emoji, and in the early 2000s he made a deal with Nokia and Samsung so that they could be used on their devices. In addition, the Smiley Company relaunched trade deals for games, products, and clothing with the smiley on it. “Nicolas Loufrani,” he wrote Smithsonian Magazine “Took the family business and turned it into an empire.”

(Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images))

Still today, at the age of 76, Franklin Loufrani runs together with Nicolas part of the business of the company, which is based in London and which, as Zachary Crockett wrote on The Hustle, has around 40 employees working in offices with “smileys painted on the walls, smiley pillows on sofas, smiley backpacks, smiley shirts, smiley toys, smiley chocolates and even smiley chicken nuggets.” Among others, the Smiley Company now has deals with Nutella, McDonald’s, Nivea and Coca-Cola. It varies a lot from country to country and from product to product, but generally if there is a smiley on something and if the person who put it there pays the related rights, a part of the earnings (sometimes up to 10 percent ) goes to Smiley Company.

Over the years the company has also had to manage various disputes and legal issues with those who, from time to time, tried to make their own version of the smiley or, in other cases, claimed to have invented it first of all. In the United States, there was a lawsuit between the Smiley Company (which tried to claim the rights to the logo in 1997, following the arrival of Nicolas Loufrani at the helm of the company) and the supermarket chain Walmart, which had registered his version of the logo in 1996. It ended, after years and millions of dollars spent, with a private agreement between the parties.

In 2001, when Bell died aged 79, the New York Times he called it “the strongest vindicator of the invention of the smiley.” Interviewed by Telegram & Gazette his son referred to him as someone “not interested in money”. In 2006, interviewed by New York Times on the invention of the smiley, Franklin Loufrani said: “it is likely that a man who drew it in some cave invented it in prehistoric times, but I was the first to register the trademark, and when we talk about commercial exploitation, this is what counts” . Loufrani also belittled the sign ???? saying it was “just punctuation”, while his son compared it to Hello Kitty, adding however that according to him there was a big difference: “unlike Hello Kitty we have a clear mission, the smiley is the mark of happiness”.

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Perhaps, however, the success of the smiley lies in its being a synthetic and above all flexible symbol, which can lend itself to very different uses and contexts. Dave Gibbons, cartoonist who drew Watchmen – in which the smiley, often bloody, is a recurring image – he said: “it is a yellow field with three signs above it, it couldn’t be simpler, until it is empty. It is therefore waiting for meanings: if you put it in a kindergarten, it suits us well; but you can also put it on the gas mask of a policeman in riot gear, and make it something completely different. ‘

(Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images)

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About Banner Leon

Videogames entered his life in the late '80s, at the time of the first meeting with Super Mario Bros, and even today they make it a permanent part, after almost 30 years. Pros and defects: he manages to finish Super Mario Bros in less than 5 minutes but he has never finished Final Fight with a credit ... he's still trying.

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