When the temperature hit the 90s Fahrenheit (30s Celsius) at lunchtime on Saturday last week, it was too hot to smile.
Standing in the green grass of Boston Common, well out of reach of the shade of bordering elms, Travis Piotrowski, the director of information technology for Northwestern Mutual in Milwaukee, nevertheless wore a big grin, literally painted across his face.
It was not his own smile, mind you, but that of a cartoon stick figure named Jake, the mascot for the contagiously popular line of T-shirts with the motto — somewhat out of step with the times — “Life is good.”
“I think the happiest people alive are the ones who are happy with the simple things,” said Piotrowski, who, with his wife and their two daughters, were among the thousands in the park for a Life is good festival — one of about 17 such activities around the country this summer for the growing legion of Jake fans.
The Piotrowskis discovered the brand while camping in Wisconsin several years ago and have since acquired at least 20 T-shirts, four coffee mugs, matching pajamas and a paddleball set that show Jake’s uncynical and ever-smiling face, which never seems to be discomforted by humidity, adversity or even that he looks more like a French mime — with his beret and white face — than a symbol of American optimism.
But the Piotrowskis appreciate Jake’s perspective on life.
“With this type of economy, people really need to take a step back and look at the big picture,” he said. “Be happy with an ice cream sundae or playing with your kids in the backyard.”
It is hard to say whether Jake is just a fad or, judging by the crowds here, a movement. As many as 30,000 people attended, according to Life is good Inc, which renders its brand name like a complete sentence.
Last year, the firm sold 4.2 million of its US$25 T-shirts and had sales of roughly US$107 million, said Bert Jacobs, who along with his brother, John Jacobs, founded the business in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1994 with only a handful of styles and a van.
They were trying to create “a symbol about what was right in the world,” he said. Jake would be a character “who was happy not because of anything he had or because he was materialistic.”
Their most popular style has Jake and his pie-faced grin sitting in an Adirondack chair as if there was nothing more to life than kicking back.
“People relate to the concept because it’s simple, and because too much of what is happening in the world is complex,” Jacobs said.
Like the mass popularization of smiley face buttons in the early 1970s, which coincided with another oil and economic crisis, Life is good T-shirts have caught on among people who feel the products are spreading a positive message in a troubled world.
The invention of the smiley face is largely credited to Harvey Ross Ball, an advertising executive from Worcester, Massachusetts, who drew the symbol in 1963 to improve worker morale at an insurance company that had merged with another.
It later became a fad when printed with the slogan “Have a nice day,” selling countless pieces of merchandise as an almost subversively counterintuitive message that in many ways seems to be repeating with “Life is good” today.
“The years when the company has thrived the most have been the most economically, politically and socially challenged years,” Jacobs said, adding that the company was on track to reach US$135 million in sales this year through retail stores and a Web site.