Spongebob Squarepants: A “Universal” Language of the 21st Century
July 12th, 2019, the long-running kids cartoon franchise Spongebob Squarepants celebrated twenty years with a birthday special. In that milestone, parent animation studio Nickelodeon revealed, among other things, that the porous protagonist netted them $13 billion in official merchandise sales over the lifespan of the show. For comparison, the asset evaluation of ViacomCBS, one of the six biggest media conglomerates in the world that owns Nickelodeon, was reported to be around $60 billion in 2021. This one small show, in competition with CBS, MTV, and Paramount studios, has sold merchandise to make up nearly a quarter of the conglomerate’s holdings this year. Even excluding licensing deals and advertising revenue, there should be no doubt that the cultural influence of this cartoon is enormous, now being the fifth longest running show in the US.
What's bizarre about Spongebob is that he wasn't born out of a corporate marketing team, he was the humble creation of a marine biologist who knew how to animate. Stephen Hillenburg is essential to understanding how in-tune Spongebob was to popular culture. Originally tapped to work on Rocko's Modern Life, he thought that the crazy oceanic creature designs had lots of potential for a show. At the time, however, that potential was glossed over by then vice president Brown Johnson. Johnson noted that "[c]ertain parts of the business at Nickelodeon were like, 'Oh no. It'll never be successful. It's about a sponge. What's that? It's yellow. That's a bad color.'"
In the end, Hillenburg proved them wrong. The vibrant colors and lively animation style he brought to the table would prove to be one of the most distinguishing in that class. As an avid micromanager on the early seasons of Spongebob, they would also prove to be the most iconic episodes as well. As The Verge notes, he didn't just make characters, he made avatars. Watching the show wasn't even required as simple quotes from the characters was enough to give a backdrop of their attributes.
As Pliable as a Sponge
Why has Spongebob survived in the mainstream media for so long? Why do other cartoons that came out around the same time only survive for a decade? The answer to that lies in the recipe of the show itself.
The main cast of characters are written in a way that represents those from all walks of life as well as those at different stages. Many growing up in my generation admire Spongebob's energy and enthusiasm, going on these wacky escapades. Squidward embodies the grown up working-class adult, filled with many desires and dreams while burdened with a monotonous day-to-day job.
As a result of this cast written to reflect the real world, the show itself is adaptable to its audience. All the content has already been written, but going back to the show ten or twenty years later allows a more mature audience to understand more material they could not before. This is also supported by the various amounts of YouTube content being generated by fans that take out-of-context clips and put them into new scenarios or even produce original works.
Following Hillenburg's death in 2018, a clip from one of the most famous episodes, Band Geeks, played at America's crown jewel sporting event: the Super Bowl. The episode reference took place in a Super Bowl-esque setting where Squidward transcended his typical failures and finally succeeded in leaving behind his mark on the art world, by conducting a successful band performance. Even if it was just a drop of screen time, the push for such an inclusion was enormous, spanning many generations of fans. Through the love of its fans, one of the biggest cultural icons made it into the biggest sporting event in America. As with its early roots, the show remains a mirror of the love of its fans and the culture they revel in. What is reveled in today are generations of people making change thanks to the inspiration drawn from the vibrant world of Bikini Bottom.