Blink and you’ll miss it, but Emilio Estevez wears a smiley face pin in the 1984 sci-fi cult classic, Repo Man. It’s an ironic gesture—his character, Otto, is more indifferent than happy. Even the appearance of aliens doesn’t snap him out of that 1980s funk. Because I am a pin fanatic, this is the highlight of the movie for me.
Today, we know it as an emoticon, and probably take it for granted, but the smiley face and the smiley face pin have a very interesting history, well told in this Smithsonian Magazine article, which I’ll summarize for you here.
In 1963, an insurance company hired adman Harvey Ball to create an image that would boost employee morale. It took him 10 minutes and three simple ink marks to create the yellow happy dude, for which he was paid $45. Neither Ball nor the insurance company trademarked it.
In the early 1970s, a couple of guys from Philadelphia slightly revised the image, added the slogan “Have a Happy Day” and successfully claimed the copyright, selling 50 million smiley face buttons the first year, along with a bunch of other related products. This was during the Vietnam War, and people needed cheering up.
In 1972, French journalist Franklin Loufrani claimed trademark rights to the smiley face in 100 countries and founded the Smiley Company, which initially sold t-shirts. His son, Nicolas, catapulted the family business to world-empire status in 1996 when he set up style guides and licensed the image to anybody that came up with the right amount of cash. KACHING!
There have been some amazing pins inspired by the classic smiley face. Watchmen, the finest graphic novel of all time, uses a smiley face with a drop of blood to capture the dystopian tone of its story. "Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon.” And who can forget Nirvana’s rendition? The colors reversed, eyes crossed out and a fallen tongue slithering out of that squirmy grin. Ugh. Teenage-angst perfected! Kurt Kobain’s suicide was tragic—an amazing poet gone too soon—and when I wear this pin, I carry his spirit with me.
For Halloween 2019, I created the Zombie Smiley Pinback . Cheerfully macabre—add him to smiley face history, my friends.