Face Value: Cultural Significance of the Smiley

My first international conference presentation, given at the 3rd International Re-Thinking Humanities and Social Sciences Conference at the University of Zadar, in Croatia.


Since its “official” creation in 1963, the cheerful, yellow-and-black Smiley has been a well-known symbol of happiness for many cultures around the world. It is important, however, to explore the reasons behind—and events leading to—its initial surge in popularity 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 employees’ morale following a merger. But a few years later, the mood of the entire American population was reaching a critical low point as well. In late 1970, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain decided the time was right for the Smiley to make a reappearance on a national scale, and began printing the face (along with the phrase “Have a Nice Day”) on thousands of items such as t-shirts, buttons, stickers and coffee mugs.

Their timing could not have been better. A series of recent traumatic events—such as the assassinations of much-loved President John F. Kennedy and civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. plus the ongoing US involvement in the war in Vietnam—had been weighing heavily on the hearts of American citizens. The Smiley became the perfect aspirational symbol for consumers to rally around, even if they weren’t yet feeling the emotion it conveyed.

For some, the Smiley provided a dose of positivity, helping to deal with the psychological trauma of the era. For others, it was more of an irony-laden veneer; a mask to hide the negativity that many were still feeling. In either case, there is much more to the now-iconic, smiling face than many people today realize, and it is important to study its effect on the collective and cultural memory of that time.