Mr. Smiley has it rough.

He was supposed to be a happy little thing, a beacon of sunny, chummy, oh-so-cute cheeriness on the license plates of Kentucky.

Instead, he has become a punch line. Ever since debuting in December 2002, the Mr. Smiley logo has been mocked, ridiculed and disparaged. Drivers have called him cornball, juvenile, embarrassing.

The distaste for Mr. Smiley ran so deep that one state legislator briefly tried to pass a measure that would allow drivers to buy a $1 Kentucky state logo to cover up poor Mr. Smiley on their plates.

Countless drivers refused to be seen with Mr. Smiley. Sales of specialty plates shot up as drivers voted with their wallets against the state's choice of automotive adornment.

Politicians have been treating Mr. Smiley as if he were radioactive. The new Republican administration in Kentucky is quick to point out that Mr. Smiley was chosen by the previous administration, that of Democrat Paul Patton.

But not all is dark for Mr. Smiley. The national Automobile License Plate Collectors Association chose Kentucky's plate recently as the best in the country.

"It's sort of like the Miss America of special commemoration plates," contest coordinator Tim Stentiford said.

Usually the group presents the award to the governor. But, Stentiford said, Ernie Fletcher declined.

-- Manuel Roig-Franzia

Drivers have mocked the smiley face on Kentucky's license plates.