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Smiley's People

After almost 50 years, the origins of the 'Smiley' are contested but the iconic yellow design emerged and became popular in 1963 as a moral booster for the employees of an insurance company in Massachusetts after a company merger. The man behind this visual reminder to put on a 'happy face' was Harvey Ball, who designed the image for a $45 fee.

Alastair travels to Worcester, just outside of Boston, to meet Harvey's son Charlie and hear the story of his father's famous design. Are Worcester's residents proud of its role in the 'smiley' story?

Murray Spain, with brother and business partner Bernie, decided the image was a perfect balm for a traumatised American public in the wake of the Vietnam War. In Philadelphia they put the image on cards, badges and gift items and by 1971 had sold 50 million badges. Just why does he think the smiley face caught the public's imagination?

Frenchman Franklin Loufrani used the image to indicate good news in the paper 'France Soir' and made swift moves to trademark the image. His company now turns over $100 million a year and embroiled in a copyright dispute with Walmart over the image in the 1990s. His son Nicholas, CEO of 'The Smiley Company', tells a tale of copyright squabbles, big business and why the logo has such longevity.

An image of childlike innocence and happiness was ripe for subversion and Alastair examines how the smiley has been used in popular culture for satirical purposes, from Acid House and rave culture to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's revered graphic novel 'The Watchmen' and Banksy's graffiti.

In Smiley's People, Alastair meets the people behind that simple image of a shiny yellow face, two bright black eyes and a 'Mr Happy' mouth and asks what, during a new period of austerity, the smiley means to us.

Producer: Rebecca Maxted
A Wise Buddah production for BBC Radio 4.

30 minutes

Last on

Sat 4 Feb 2012 10:30
BBC Radio 4 FM only
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