Face Value: The History of the Smiley in 1970s American Pop Culture

This presentation on visual rhetoric and cultural memory was pulled from my book chapter, The Semiotics of a Smile, and presented at The Politics of Memory: 3rd International RHSS Conference, at the University of Zadar, Croatia in September, 2012.

Presentation abstract:
Since its “official” creation in 1963, the ubiquitous, pre-emoticon, yellow-and-black Smiley has been a symbol of happiness for many cultures around the world, especially in the U.S. It is important, however, to explore the reasons behind—and events leading to—its popularity as the “face” of American pop culture in the early 1970s.

When the Smiley was first sketched by American designer Harvey Ball for the State Mutual Life Insurance Company, its sole purpose was to raise low morale following a difficult company merger. But a few years later, the morale of the entire country was reaching a low point as well. A conflagration of traumatic events—the assassinations of much-loved President John F. Kennedy and of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., along with the increasingly violent race riots and protests against the war in Vietnam—weighed heavily on the heart of the American culture.

Thanks to entrepreneurial brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, the Smiley’s sudden appearance, along with the catchphrase “Have a Nice Day,” on thousands of t-shirts, stickers and buttons became an aspirational symbol of hope for many; a dose of positivity that helped them deal with the psychological trauma of the era. For others, it was just an irony-laden veneer; a mask to hide the rampant negativity that many were feeling.

Now that the popularity of the original smiley has been surpassed by its digital cousin, the emoticon, it is important to remember the reasons for its original success and impact on the collective and cultural memory of that time.

If you would like a pdf of the full presentation, please send me a message via the contact page.