When smiling for a week feels like pulling teeth

The only people left grinning after National Smile Week are money-grabbing dentists and the vacuous models advertising everyday goods, says Iain Murray

Last week was National Smile Week, but don’t worry if you missed it, there will be another one along next year. And if you have the time and money you needn’t wait that long – the US has a National Smile Week this August.

Our event is organised by the British Dental Health Foundation to promote oral hygiene and to provide business for the dental profession and the manufacturers of toothpaste, toothbrushes, mouth rinses and the like. I don’t suppose dentists working in the NHS – who are as rare as hen’s teeth – are particularly eager to attract new business since as soon as a newcomer to their ranks opens his doors, a queue forms twice round the block. National Smile Week is for all those happy fee-charging practitioners who grin when they see a patient’s chequebook.

National Smile Week is of interest to marketers because smiling is integral to the business. It is the first law of marketing that the promotion of consumer goods is inextricably bound up with the happiness to be derived from their consumption. And though happiness has a number of outward manifestations – some people jump for joy, others, notably footballers, pull off their upper garments and run around in circles in an attempt to disappear into the vortex of their own backsides – the smile is the most instantly recognised the world over.

That is why people seen in ads for anything from cosmetics to cars are beside themselves with delight. Show them a bar of chocolate and you’d think they had personally witnessed the advent of heaven on Earth complete with a choir of angels fresh from a sell-out tour of Elysium.

It’s not as easy as it looks, this smiling. For you don’t need a diploma in body language from the Open University to know that a smile cannot denote just happiness or pleasure, but also mirth. And it doesn’t do to have your product laughed at, not unintentionally at any rate. So it is important to choose models who can affect a natural smile, rather than look as though they had just been goosed by a meerkat.

It takes real acting talent to simulate a genuine smile that conveys sincerity, warmth, pleasure, all the qualities with which one wants to invest the product being plugged. Quite how difficult the art of the feigned smile is is shown by research conducted on behalf of Philips Oral Health Care as its contribution to National Smile Week.

The study was conducted by Peta Heskell, a body language expert (of whom there must be almost as many as counsellors, aromatherapists and other beneficiaries of the miracle of 21st-century job creation) who dutifully adumbrates her findings with examples from the world of celebrity and politics, both of which contain more counterfeits than a car boot sale.

Miss Heskell detects five categories of smile – there may be more, but this was National Smile Week, not National Smile Month, and you get what you pay for. The Flirty Smile is exemplified by television presenter Cat Deeley and is used by someone who is “good fun but prefers others to make the first move” – so when one flirty smiler meets another it is a door attendant’s nightmare.

The Phoney Tony Smile is named after our own dear Prime Minister, whose speciality is a short-lived smile through cold eyes and clenched teeth. The Sunshine Smile is the most genuine, with a big toothy grin and crinkly eyes: actress Julia Roberts is apparently a good example. The I’m-Afraid-To-Smile Smile is practised by confident people who keep their mouths shut. Finally, there is the Wicked Smile. Sean Connery has one of these. It involves flaring the nostrils and quivering the lips, so if you’ve seen a horse about to sneeze, you’ll get the idea.

This suggests that actors in ads should have a Sunshine Smile, or at any rate be capable of impersonating one better than Tony Blair. It’s all a matter of personal preference but, speaking for myself, I’d be unlikely to be persuaded by anyone who derives enjoyment verging on insanity from everything from a slice of pizza to a motor insurance policy. Who wants to buy a product endorsed by an idiot?

There is far greater credibility in an expression of quiet satisfaction or contentment than in a manifestation of manic glee. However pleased one might be with a bowl of breakfast cereal, the experience does not, in the real world, warrant the kind of response normally aroused by an evening with Ken Dodd. Nor should an oven chip, however well prepared and presented, be a cause of intemperate jollity.

By the way, if you can get along to America’s National Smile Week, you will find it much more fun than our own. For example, participants are invited to have a “smile off”. The idea is to “see who can smile the longest”. To make it harder, the organisers suggest you should see who can smile the longest without laughing. Another suggestion is that you should get together with a few friends and take a field trip to a dentist’s office. Imagine trying that in this country. Turn up unannounced with a few mates at the door of the local tooth-puller and see how long it takes to wipe the smile off his face.

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