He Drew a Smiley Face, Got $45. It's Now Worth Way, Way More

Inside the $500M-a-year business
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 12, 2019 3:40 PM CDT
Updated Jun 16, 2019 7:33 AM CDT
He Drew a Smiley Face, Got $45. It's Now Worth Way, Way More
Lots of smiley faces.   (Getty Images)

There is such a thing as the Smiley Company, and as Zachary Crockett explains in a piece for the Hustle, it is just as yellow and icon-filled as you'd expect: "Smiley paintings line the walls. Smiley pillows adorn the couches. There are smiley backpacks, smiley t-shirts, smiley exercise balls, smiley toys, smiley chocolates, and even smiley chicken nuggets." But Crockett's piece isn't a fluffy exploration of a quirky London office. It's a look at the business backstory of a simple yellow dot with black eyes and smile. As far as Crockett can tell, the first modern mainstream drawing of it was the work of Harvey Ball, a Massachusetts freelance artist who in 1963 was paid $45 ($376 in today's dollars) to create an image that would boost morale at the State Mutual Life Assurance Company. Problem was, he didn't trademark it.

Nearly a decade later, a French journalist named Franklin Loufrani wanted a symbol that could highlight stories in the newspaper that were actually positive. What he came up with was much like Ball's smiley face—and he trademarked it in France so he could license the image (meaning other businesses could use it and then pay him a cut of the sale). To ramp up the demand, he took advantage of the cultural climate of the early '70s and printed 10 million of them on stickers, which he gave out for free. Licensing agreements soon followed from the likes of Mars, Levi's, and clothing companies. In 1996, with business on the wane and the icon less popular, Loufrani's 26-year-old son was handed the operational reins: and he formally created the Smiley Company. It's now a $500 million-a-year business. Read the full story, which explains one big move Loufrani's son made that made his father furious. (More Longform stories.)

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