Vote for smiley culture!

Hippy symbol, icon of Acid House, now the smiley face is back - and into politics.
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BEWARE OF flashbacks at the polling booths next week. The Green Party are encouraging voters to make their mark with a smiley face, the symbol of Acid House, and associated with the drug-taking hedonism of the 1980s.

Governmental law experts have been so concerned about the apathetic response from voters that centuries of tradition have been overturned and a smiley face on voting papers will now be accepted.

Kevin Saunders, chief press officer for the Green Party, says: "This is the happy face of politics, and we're trying to put a little bit of fun into what has been a very boring campaign from the other parties."

Although one man's happiness is another man's ecstasy, the campaign marks a return of fortunes for the smiley icon. It is generally accepted that it was devised in 1963 by a commercial artist from Massachusetts (despite being the subject of international controversy and an on-going lawsuit). Legend has it that Harvey Ball was paid pounds 35 to create a "happiness icon" for a local insurance company, to boost staff morale.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it became appropriated by the hippy movement. It then became a cultural and marketing cliche, used to sell products including soaps, disposable tablecloths and computer games. At rock festivals, revellers take their pick from racks of T-shirts featuring smiley faces (and smiley faces with spliffs).

In 1987, Alan Moore subverted the image for the cover of his graphic novel, The Watchmen, in which someone gets shot - wearing a smiley badge. A blood-splattered smiley face adorns the front, which inspired the cover of "Beat Dis" by Bomb The Bass, one of the first Acid House hits, reaching No 2 in 1988.

Ten years later, Damien Hirst used the image of a smiley face badge, in the soil, to illustrate the jacket of Happy Like Murderers, a book by Gordon Burn about Rosemary and Frederick West. It also appears in crude, childlike form, on the cover of Primal Scream's influential album, Screamadelica.

Women with names such as Tammi, Pammi and Sammi pop a smiley face over their signatures, and a Texan judge called Charles Hearn won't sign his name without one. In 1993, he even put a smiley face on a killer's death warrant. Defence lawyer William Kunstler was furious: "It's like he is saying: have a nice death." But Judge Hearn was unrepentant. "We have got too many people walking around the world with grim faces," he said. "I just want to make the world more cheerful. I've put a smiley face next to my signature for years." No doubt killer Robert Drew laughed all the way to the electric chair.

It is also a familiar symbol at the bottom of restaurant bills, used to elicit a more generous tip, alongside a scrawled "Thanx".

In the late-1990s, a pared down version, :-) , became an in-joke among the e-mailing classes... but it came back to haunt computer users in America earlier this year, when thousands of terminals were affected by the Melissa virus, in which a winking smiley face popped up on the screen, and the top 50 addresses in the receiver's e-mail list were sent hardcore pornography.

To many people, it will forever be associated with the late-1980s and the so-called "second summer of love" in 1988. Tom Whitwell, features editor of dance magazine, Mixmag, describes it as "the logo of the times", but is surprised that the Green Party want to encourage its revival. "It's fallen from fashion, the reason being, it was associated with drugs," he says. However, he sees its vote winning potential. "It might pick up a few voters, old drug monsters, recapturing their youth."

Wayne Anthony, author of Class of 88: The True Acid House Experience, and a former rave organiser, recalls: "[In the 1980s] Smiley faces were in abundance, on T-shirts, bandanas, badges, patches on jeans, the whole works... and they were frequently on small bits of blotting paper which had been dipped in LSD."

He strongly disapproves of the Green Party's ploy, which he believes is cynical and exploitative. "I think it's taken away from the seriousness of the matter," he says. "I can see what they're trying to do - the political parties are trying to connect with a younger group, but their approach is wrong. It's like this whole Cool Britannia thing, way off the mark. They're trying to say: we're cool, we're hip, come on board. But the truth of it is, young people get a really hard deal, and if they want to do something, give them grants and opportunities, not marketing symbols."

And his most damning criticism? "It's uncool now," he states firmly. "No one wears smiley faces now, not even saddies."