A dairy industry promotional group has begun a campaign to evoke its distinctive milk mustache TV ads through the medium of text messaging by adding a milk mustache to the smiley emoticon.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

February 27, 2007

3 Min Read

The electronic emoticon was born on Sept. 19, 1982, when Scott E. Fahlman, now a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, first proposed the smiley :-) as a diacritical mark for jokes, which aren't always obvious in e-mail.

Almost a quarter century later, the smiley has grown a mustache :-{) in the service of marketing. MilkPEP, a dairy industry promotional group funded by the nation's milk processors, has begun a campaign to evoke its distinctive milk mustache TV ads through the medium of text messaging by adding a milk mustache to the smiley emoticon.

The campaign is the product of Lowe Worldwide, a New York-based ad agency.

"It's really about new ways to reach our teen target audience," says Victor Zaborsky, director of marketing for MilkPEP. "They don't watch as much TV and they don't ready as many magazines. The Internet is where they live and breathe."

The new emoticon is one of the few associated with a specific brand or trademark. Wikipedia lists only one other such emoticon. Seldom seen in the wild, it represents Princess Leia @-_-@ from Star Wars.

"The whole idea of emoticons/smileys is out there in the public domain, where it belongs, and I've certainly got no issue with companies using smileys in ads," Fahlman says in an e-mail. "It's kind of fun for me to see these things spreading inexorably through the culture."

Fahlman, however has some reservations about efforts to asset ownership of emoticons. "I think it's obnoxious when a company tries to get a trademark -- exclusive use -- on a smiley that is already in common use," he said. "But that's really no worse than companies trying to trademark common English phrases, such as 'It's the real thing!' or 'Imagine that' or 'The Big Game' (which the NFL is trying to grab for their own exclusive use). If it were up to me, none of that would be allowed, whether for English phrases or smileys. However, trademark protection is pretty limited -- it just covers use in one small area of commerce -- and it's hard to enforce even these restrictions, so the damage done is fairly minimal. Some people are confused about this, but it does not prevent people from using these smileys in e-mail to one another."

In fact, MilkPEP would like nothing better than to see people employ its mustachioed smiley in their text and e-mail messages. The group isn't making any intellectual property claims with regard to the emoticon.

To encourage the use of the new symbol, MilkPEP appended the series of typographic characters to online title of a video the group posted to YouTube featuring NBA star Vince Carter, who stars in milk ads. The group also employed the milk-mustache emoticon in e-mail alerts sent to its 20,000 MySpace "friends."

It's not clear, however, that everyone will understand what the new emoticon means. Fahlman observes that in most fonts it will end up "looking like a weird mouth rather than a milk mustache."

For plastic surgeons who deal with such issues, text-based marketing opportunities await.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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