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Squeezing the Sponge Dry

Are You Ready, Kids?

Following the wacky and whimsical underwater adventures of personified sea creatures, SpongeBob SquarePants has become a cornerstone of childhoods across the globe.  There was something charming about a charismatic sponge living in a pineapple under the sea that managed to capture the imaginations of all who viewed the show, adults included.  As a child who enjoyed and cherished the golden years of SpongeBob, recent viewings as an adult of modern episodes have lead me to the disturbing realization that the inhabitants of Bikini Bottom have become husks of their former selves.  The creative writing and engaging dialogue has been lost, the art style has lost its signature flair, and the characters with their own unique identities have deteriorated into crowd-pleasing stereotypes.  The current state of the once engaging children’s show has even been marked as a developmental danger to young viewers.  Simply put, Time Warner and the Nickelodeon Network are squeezing the sponge dry, wringing the porous yellow icon for every cent.

The idea of a talking sponge had been in the depths of creator Stephen Hillenburg’s mind since 1986 (Heinjtes, 2012).  It was only until the late nineties the idea gained network traction.  Being an artist and also a marine biologist gave Hillenburg the perfect set of tools to create the SpongeBob universe.  Nickelodeon liked the concept so much that they widely advertised the show’s premier across its networks.  Debuting in 1999, SpongeBob SquarePants became an instant success as children, including me, tuned in to watch the pilot episode starring SpongeBob Squarepants as he comically quested to become the fry cook of the Krusty Krab.  With its excellent start, Nickelodeon gave Hillenburg the green light to continue to produce more SpongeBob episodes.  With a strong premiere centered on easily marketable and distinctive characters, Nickelodeon and Time Warner were just scratching the surface of the SpongeBob SquarePants plunder.

SpongeBob’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg

After the first episode aired on television, SpongeBob SquarePants was deemed “a marketer’s dream come true” (Sarlin, 2000).  Not only was SpongeBob attracting the viewership of curious children, SpongeBob was simultaneously absorbing the attention of college students and older adults.  SpongeBob smartly wielded relatively new technology and appeared on college-targeted webcasts, giving away 80,000 SpongeBob t-shirts (Sarlin, 2000).  Teens and adults who tuned in quickly warmed to the clever writing of Hillenburg and his companions.  The episodes contained content that was able to cleverly entertain all ages while remaining clean and fresh.  SpongeBob was rapidly merchandised by Nickelodeon, appearing on all sorts of water-themed products, and as plush toys and figures (Sarlin, 2000).  Ruth Sarlin (2000), once Nickelodeon’s vice president of brand marketing, stated that SpongeBob was a marketer’s dream come true because of the program’s ability to induce both a push and pull marketing phenomenon.  Push marketing can be described as the producer of the content creating consumer demand, and pull marketing is created by consumer demand out of its own volition (Rimlinger, 2011).   No amount of nautical nonsense could satisfy the feverish SpongeBob fanbase during the show’s heyday in the early 2000’s.

Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon Networks and the MTV Network Group says “You can’t make hip happen.  SpongeBob is hip because he is, well, square” (Donovan, 2004).  SpongeBob is not only hip because he is square, but because his networks have aggressively marketed him with cunning aggression.  In 2004, SpongeBob was the most popular show across all age groups on Nickelodeon, and 150 SpongeBob retail licenses had been handed out to create an army of products within nearly every consumer category.  That year, SpongeBob generated a whopping $2.5 million dollars in retail sales (Donovan, 2004).  SpongeBob had been lucky enough to reach a so-called cult status, where fans became so enthralled they avidly purchased SpongeBob merchandise to satisfy their media-fueled desire for merchandise collection.

The show’s immense popularity inevitably brought the illustrious geometric invertebrate to the silver screen with the release of 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.  With the unstoppable wave of momentum and popularity SpongeBob was already riding, the film was a success.  The release of the film marks a turning point for the storied series.  According to Tom Heintjes’ (2012) chronicling of the SpongeBob franchise, creator Stephen Hillenburg hoped that the film would be the grand finale.  Hillenburg figured that SpongeBob had reached its peak, and was satisfied with his decision to step away as the heart and soul of the show.  Being the lifeblood of Nickelodeon, there was zero chance of the discontinuation of SpongeBob.  Nickelodeon filled in the vacancies left by Hillenburg and others, and revved up the marketing engines to a higher gear.

Just like greedy Mr. Krabs, Nickelodeon was blinded by its fortune

The profits of SpongeBob SquarePants continued to rise years after the release of the full-length feature film.  A special television episode drew the viewership of an astonishing 8.6 million people in the United States, and even more internationally (Hampp, 2006).  The previously mentioned 150 retail licenses had swelled to 700, and retail sales had ballooned to over $8 billion dollars annually by the show’s tenth anniversary (Hampp, 2006).  The SpongeBob renaissance even brought the brightly colored character to close the New York Stock Exchange, erect eight SpongeBob statues across the globe, and become the first cartoon inductee to Madame Tussauds wax museums (Hampp, 2006).  Financially, SpongeBob had reached a level that only the deranged speculators could have predicted.  Though the economic gain was immense, the tradeoff was a sharp decline in the overall quality of the episodes, and the beginning of an oversaturated SpongeBob market.

SpongeBob at the New York Stock Exchange

SpongeBob became the crutch that Nickelodeon leaned on.  At one point in 2011, SpongeBob was 40% of Nickelodeon’s programming (Jannarone, 2012).  With all the success that SpongeBob was having, Nickelodeon neglected to develop new television shows to diversify the network’s wealth.  Ratings began to slide for the first time in the show’s history, as consumers had consumed their fill of SpongeBob content.  The targeted age group of ages 2-11 were fed rerun after rerun, with executives reasoning that children would be happy viewing the same programming over and over (Jannarone, 2012).  Adults, including myself, quickly tired from the overexposure of SpongeBob and his submarine companions, and began to turn their attention elsewhere.  Jonathan Berr (2012) sums up the state of SpongeBob accurately when he declares that Nickelodeon “got lazy”, and the network believed the show could run forever off of content irrelevant to its audience.  Berr finishes his article with the denouncing statement of “Obviously, whatever fan support it enjoys is not enough”.

The ratings declination of modern episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants may also be attributed to the intervention of cautious parents.  Recent studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics labelled SpongeBob a possible mental health hazard to young children (Lillard & Peterson, 2011).  The deterioration in the show’s quality has lead SpongeBob and his friends to act erratically nonsensical in their underwater world.  With quick-cuts, slap-stick violence, and headache-inducing dialogue, the poor state of modern SpongeBob is actually affecting our children.  The research conducted on young children of the show’s targeted age group, and they were sat down for a specific amount of time to complete one of three activities.  The first activity was watching an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants, the second was Caillou, an educational and realistic PBS program.  For the third activity, the researchers turned off the television entirely and the children engaged in arts and crafts.  The first group of children, who watched SpongeBob, experienced a drastic decline in executive function when compared to the other groups.  Executive function is a person’s ability for memory, self-regulation, and their attention span (Lillard & Peterson, 2011).  Tossed to the waves were the intricacies and nuances of well-written storyboards and developed characters as Nickelodeon dumbed it all down, our kids included.

In the first few seasons of SpongeBob Squarepants, SpongeBob himself was a heartwarming character who only wanted to please those around him.  Straddling a line between childhood and adulthood, the endearing SpongeBob dealt with complex themes that made the show genuinely interesting.  SpongeBob dealt with employment issues, stealing, procrastination, art appreciation, and many more ageless topics.  Also note that these topics contain valuable lessons which young children can learn from, and most of the recent episodes are devoid of such beneficial themes.  Early SpongeBob even expresses an indiscernible sexuality, one that treasures the companionship of anyone.  Hillenburg wanted to make sure he dreamt of a world where everyone was different, and that was acceptable.  He wanted SpongeBob to be able hold hands with his pink best friend.  Though he declined that SpongeBob was gay, Hillenburg did comment that SpongeBob was “almost asexual” (“Camp cartoon star ‘is not gay’”, 2002).  Unsurprisingly, a conservative media firestorm followed, questioning the show’s integrity.  Such an onslaught was quickly deflected by SpongeBob’s capitalistic might.

SpongeBob and Patrick taking part in a best-friends chest-bump

Recent episodes have seen SpongeBob and his companions in the shadows of their former creative glory.  SpongeBob himself has turned into a being of pure annoyance and dysfunction, no longer showing any signs of the young adult sponge he used to be.  The pitch of his voice has even been raised to be more childlike and irritating.  Originally, SpongeBob embraced curiosity and the willingness to learn.  SpongeBob was a fine citizen of Bikini Bottom, always hoping to please his fellow citizens.  His magnetic and silly laugh could crack a smile on the face of even the most hardened adult.  Patrick Star has been a simple-minded creature since his inception, but now he encapsulates an embarrassing level of stupidity.  When Hillenburg was a part of the show, Patrick delivered lines with masked intelligence and sincere comedy.  The Patrick Star of today is barely able to function, becoming a stereotypical dunce for the audience masses to guffaw at.  Squidward Tentacles has transformed from SpongeBob’s grumpy neighbor with a taste for the fine arts to a one-dimensional and always angry hexapod.  Gone are the creative secondary characters, such as Mermaid Man, Barnacle Boy, and their accompanying villains.  Those hilarious adventures have been replaced by shallow guest characters voiced by celebrities, such as Johnny Depp (Hampp, 2009).  The insertion of these characters serves only to promote the show and earn more money, regardless of the show’s actual content.

Sandy proving that she is tough enough to enter the Salty Spitoon

Even the hallowed early seasons of SpongeBob are not without fault.  A glaring issue is the overall lack of female characters inhabiting Bikini Bottom.  Out of an entire city filled to the brim with colorful characters, there are only three notable female characters.  One is Pearl the emotional and anxious whale, one is the venerable Mrs. Puff, the puffer fish, and the last is Sandy Cheeks, the impossible ocean-dwelling squirrel.  Not only are female characters lacking in representation, two of the three that do exist are complete stereotypes.  Pearl is needy and obsessed with material wealth, and lacking any sort of backbone.  As the daughter of the greedy Mr. Krabs, Pearl fulfills the stereotype of the always dependent woman.  Mrs. Puff, the boating school instructor, plays into the stereotype of the fragile old lady.  Being that her character is a puffer fish, her fragility is even more apparent as the slightest disturbance causes her violently expand, making her completely unable to function.  Mrs. Puff always gets stuffed in an ambulance and carted away.  Sandy Cheeks plays the biggest role of the three, and luckily she is the only female character with merit.  The space-suited squirrel is adventurous, courageous, strong, and incredibly resilient living in such alien aquatic conditions.  The Texan squirrel is multi-faceted, and SpongeBob is frequently outmatched in his encounters with her.  Sandy is the only bright spot for feminine representation in the SpongeBob Squarepants television show as she manages to avoid the stereotypical pitfalls afflicting her scarce female friends.

Paralleling the deterioration of the show’s complexities and richness weaved throughout its content has been the deterioration of the show’s artistic prowess.  Once carefully and painstakingly hand-drawn, the show has been relegated to being animated overseas.  By watching SpongeBob episodes after Hillenburg’s departure, one can notice distinct differences.  The characters are now outlined with extra-thick black lines, and the universe of SpongeBob has lost some of its nautical vibrancy, such as in the still backgrounds or in the scene designs.  The fan-favorite still life paintings of SpongeBob and his pals that were hilariously used to accentuate extreme emotion or key parts of the storyline have vanished.  Hillenburg admits in an interview (Cavna, 2009) that the writers of SpongeBob now submit their storyboards to Rough Draft Studios in Korea, where they iconic sponge to life.  There is little doubt that the Rough Draft employees do a fine and wonderful job in animating the denizens of Bikini Bottom, but they do not take the same amount of time and care as creator Stephen Hillenburg used to do when animating his beloved series.  They animate quickly and clean, in an almost sanitized fashion to ensure that the latest episodes of SpongeBob are produced in the most efficiently profitable manner.

The hilarious still life art has vanished

If Hillenburg SpongeBob and post-Hillenburg SpongeBob existed in a theoretical vacuum, post-Hillenburg SpongeBob could be defined as low-culture entertainment.  SpongeBob SquarePants as a whole is easily low-culture entertainment in the context of our current society.  Low-culture can be defined as simple entertainment that generally offers little improvement to our lives; low-culture is a distraction (Campbell et al., 2014).  High-culture is rare and inspiring; it enlightens the viewer and fills their mind with engaging thought (Campbell et al., 2014).  SpongeBob is just a simple television show on a children’s network, thus it is low-culture.  However, if old and new SpongeBob episodes were compared side by side, new SpongeBob fulfills the trash requirements of low-culture.  Old SpongeBob episodes taught lessons, offered unique art and animation, and dealt with many deep concepts.  New SpongeBob fails to do any of those.  It is no wonder that fans such as me yearn for the return of SpongeBob’s glory days, and turn our noses haughtily skyward at the thought of consuming the latest iterations of the submerged sponge.

Corporate domination of the networks, airwaves, and internet has forced SpongeBob SquarePants to hyper-commercialize.  The original charm of SpongeBob sadly drowned in the raging seas of capitalism.  Media giants want to produce content as fast as possible while spending as little as possible, and they also want to produce content which reinforces their positions of power.  These massive corporations, such as Time Warner, produces programming which recycles the same storylines and stereotypes, because these have a long history of being profitable (McChesney, 2004).  The corporate vice has suffocated any creativity and thinking outside the box for most of media’s popular content.  SpongeBob SquarePants stayed afloat and avoided the content-withering pulls of capitalism for a time, but that time has clearly passed.  SpongeBob was once something special; now he and his show blend in with all the other generic mainstream media.  With profits priority, Nickelodeon is expected to keep producing soulless SpongeBob episodes as their treasure piles up.  In 2009, SpongeBob’s tenth anniversary, Nickelodeon’s chief marketing officer teased, “it’s just the beginning” (Hampp, 2009).  Those words could induce the strongest of groans from the networks already critically dehydrated sponge.

spongebob2

SpongeBob Squarepants has a long and colorful history.  The superstar experienced unprecedented popularity, and a global rise to fame.  Audiences of all ages were eager to tune in to the adventures of SpongeBob and friends, knowing that they were in for a delight of imagination in an impossible undersea world.  Nickelodeon had found its new flagship, and poured all of its marketing resources into the SpongeBob franchise.  After Hillenburg’s creative influence disappeared from SpongeBob’s production, the program began to spiral into an unrecognizable form of mindless entertainment.  The characters lost their values, and even their signature appearance.  The plots simplified.  Stereotypes became more pronounced and gender imbalances were highlighted.  This current state of SpongeBob devolved into drivel when compared to its earlier state.  Barely classifiable as low-culture entertainment, modern SpongeBob persists as it is incredibly easy to consume.  Perhaps thankfully, SpongeBob has finally showed its first signs of stumbling from its perch as the number one cartoon (Berr, 2012, Jannarone, 2012).  Nickelodeon must decide what to do with its uber-profitable and hyper-commercial sponge as it looks towards the future.  With signs of financial slippage, one can hope Nickelodeon will embrace SpongeBob’s legacy and once again hand the reigns of creativity back to the show’s original creator, Stephen Hillenburg.  If SpongeBob SquarePants ever recaptures the magic that it once embraced and spread throughout millions of television sets, I will as a longtime fan and new adult, jump back on the deck and flop like a fish.  Until then, I shall remain dormant, echoing the show’s maritime theme in my heart.

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References

Berr, Jonathan. “Viacom should pull the plug on SpongeBob.” MSNMoney. N.p., 4 May 2012.   Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <http://money.msn.com/top-stocks/post.aspx?post=942b02c6-e5b2-   405d-bba8-277797fa7839>.

“Camp cartoon star ‘is not gay’.” BBC News. BBC, 10 Sept. 2002. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.             <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2313221.stm&gt;

Campbell, R., Fabos, B., Frechette, J., Gomery, D., & Jensen, J. (2014). Media in Society.             Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Cavna, M. (2009, July 14). The Interview: ‘SpongeBob’ Creator Stephen Hillenburg. The             Washington Post. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from             http://voices.washingtonpost.com/comic-riffs/2009/07/_tom_kenny_who_voices.html

Donovan, S. (2004, June 21). Nickelodeon – SpongeBob SquarePants. MultiChannel News, 25,       14. Retrieved December 1, 2013, from the ProQuest database.

Hampp, A. (2009, July 13). How SpongeBob Became an $8 Billion Franchise. Advertising Age,     80, 23. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from the EBSCO Host database.

Heintjes, Tom. “The Oral History of SpongeBob SquarePants.” Cartoonician. N.p., 21 Sept.             2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <http://cartoonician.com/the-oral-history-of-spongebob-            squarepants/>.

Jannarone, J. (2012, May 2). Viacom’s SpongeBob Crisis. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved        December 2, 2013, from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303990604577370510139597158

Lillard, A., & Peterson, J. (2011). The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on        Young Children’s Executive Function. Pediatrics128(4), n.p.

McChesney, R. W. (2004). The problem of the media: U.S. communication politics in the twenty-first century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Rimlinger, Chris. “Push and Pull Marketing Strategies: Using Them to Your Advantage.” Franchising World 43.12 (2011): 15-16. Retrieved December 10, 2013, from the ProQuest database.

Wagner, M. (2000, June 26). Spongebob Squarepants: Ruth Sarlin. Advertising Age, 71, 26. Retrieved December 1, 2013, from the ProQuest database.

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