A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Forty Two


Harvey Ball (1921 – 2001)

I’ve already reported on the fact that emoji is considered to be the fastest growing language. For me the first manifestation of man’s desire to return to pictograms was the smiley face, generally yellow with an inane smile, which was so ubiquitous that, rather like traffic cones, you wonder what brought them about and who was it that first devised them. Wonder no more because this is where the latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame, American commercial artist Harvey Ball, comes in.

The insurance industry can rarely be accused of being a force for good or improving human existence but this might be an exception. The State Mutual Life Assurance Company had bought the Guarantee Mutual Company and as is often the way in these circumstances was facing a staff morale issue as a result of trying to integrate the two organisations. Someone in the higher echelons, showing the genius that got them there, decided what would persuade the reluctant employees to do twice the work for the same pay was a feel-good campaign.

Ball was employed in 1963 to design an image that could be used on buttons, desk cards and posters. Within less than ten minutes – you wonder what took him so long, so rudimentary is the design – the smiley face was born. And it was an instant success, achieving State Mutual’s objective of getting its staff to smile while going about their everyday tasks of answering the telephone, turning down claims and making colleagues redundant. It was a roaring success.

Great news, you would think, for our Harvey but alas he didn’t share in the success of the image that he created for the simple reason that he did not copyright or patent the design. All he got directly from his endeavours was his fee from State Mutual of $45. If it makes you feel any better State Mutual didn’t benefit either because they didn’t patent or copyright the image.

Where there is an opportunity, though, others will step in. Step forward brothers Bernard and Murray Spain from Philadelphia. They came across Ball’s badge design and thought that it together with the slogan, “Have a happy day” would go a long way to curing America’s post-Vietnam blues. And so they copyrighted the icon and slogan and started producing their own novelty items. By the end of 1971 they had sold over 50 million badges and other bric-a-brac, generating a substantial profit. They changed the slogan to “Have a nice day” along the way and it has become a popular – and irritating, in my view – alternative to “Goodbye”.

In France in 1972 journalist Franklin Loufrani became the first person to register the mark for commercial use when he used a smiley face to highlight the, admittedly rare, instances of a good news story in the pages of France Soir. He subsequently trademarked the image, known as Smiley, in over 100 countries and launched the Smiley Company by selling T-shirt transfers. Today the Smiley Company is one of the top 100 licensing companies of the world.

Loufrani’s son poured eau froide over the suggestion that Ball was the originator of the design. Loufrani suggests that the image is so basic that it cannot be assigned to anyone, pointing out on the company website the remarkable resemblance of a stone age carving dating from 2,500 BCE found in a French cave to the smiley.

Ball showed remarkable sangfroid when he saw the appropriation of and commercialisation of his image. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time”. For this stoicism Harvey, you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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