People of all ages watch television, and there are programs created for everyone. However, it is common sense that a show created for the 80+ or 5 and under demographic would not be as successful as one for the 18-24 market. Still, kid shows like SpongeBob SquarePants are widely popular, and it’s not because the 3 year olds are turning it on themselves. Television creators know what sells, and they are well aware that parents are watching with their children. It is the parents who decide what to put on and sit through, and therefore targeting adults as well children is the perfect equation for a successful kids show. Kid shows contain subtle adult humor to keep an older audiences’ attention, which allows for marketers to advertise at the expense of children’s exposure to adult content.
The idea of tying adult messages into kid shows is nothing new. Shows like The Flintstones that first aired in 1960, and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse in 1986, both contain a vast amount of double meanings for the older audience. One example of this can be seen in an episode of The Flintstones when Barney and Fred walk into a costume shop. Barney tells Fred he is going to get him something that makes him look tall. Fred asks, “how about another head?” to which Barney replies, “Another one? What do I need 3 of them for?” and they both laugh (The Flintstones). Most adults would catch the dirty joke being made, but to a child, there is nothing inappropriate about this statement. Similarly, Pee-Wee has made references such as, “you know what they say about big feet, big…” followed by a knowing silence (Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). These are just a few of many examples from older television shows.
More recently, kid shows like SpongeBob SquarePants strategically use adult humor to connect with their older audience. For those who are unfamiliar with SpongeBob, it is a children’s cartoon made up of sea creatures living underwater in the town of “Bikini Bottom”. One of the main characters that live in “Bikini Bottom” is Mr. Krabs. Let that sink in… If that isn’t enough, in one episode SpongeBob is seen watching a piece of coral swaying majestically on TV until his pet snail meows, causing him to jump and change the channel to football. Older viewers catch this porn reference, and laugh even more so at the fact that such jokes are displayed on a children’s show.
For older viewers, catching these innuendos brings pleasure, and an incentive to view programs they should be too old for. In 2001, two years after the show first aired, it became “the network’s No. 2 kids program” with “nearly 40 percent of its audience of 2.2 million ages 18 to 34” (Rocky Mountain News, 2001). 13 years later, Nickelodeon is successfully creating new episodes, and a big chunk of their older audience consists of former viewers that are comfortable with the brand. So what is the advantage of drawing in older viewers? Advertising.
SpongeBob went from being a Saturday morning cartoon to a primetime slot on multiple networks. When any show becomes a hit, everything from license plate frames to t-shirts and lingerie are created for fans. “When SpongeBob took off for more audiences than just children, a whole new world was opened up in terms of marketing” (Conrad, 2009). Children are great influencers on parents, and adults are consumers. For this reason, SpongeBob has been a huge success for Nickelodeon, and marketers in particular. Nickelodeon often partners with car companies and hotels, knowingly advertising to both children and parents watching. This is valuable on the Network’s end, and their partners. However, is there a greater cost?
Shows that provide enjoyment for both kids and their parents contribute to the success of the show and the network. Marketers advertise to both persuasive children, and easily influenced parents, and therefore marketers succeed as well. This cycle seems to work and benefit many, however children are still consuming questionable content. As much as one would like to believe that children aren’t reading into the jokes as their parents are, they very well might be. “Children are growing up faster these days” and because of this, “kids are catching on faster to the jokes” (Conrad, 2009). Although SpongeBob doesn’t appear to be a harmful cartoon, “it still has adult undertones that children learn to understand before adults realize this” (Conrad, 2009). No, a three-year-old would not understand that there is a double meaning behind SpongeBob handing his pet snail bars of soap and saying, “Doubloons! Don’t drop them!” (SpongeBob). However, a 10 year old would certainly pick up on a scene where Squidward says, “that will make Mr. Krab’s whole wiener thing blow right up in his face” (Spongebob). Based on the words being said, and the reactions from the characters, a 10 year old would have enough to know this phrase is not actually about hot dogs.
The problem is that it is not just 3 year olds and adults watching shows like SpongeBob. With a range of every age watching, there is a time where some children will understand the inappropriate jokes. Heather Hendershot argues that “eager to believe their children remain untainted by the corrupt adult world, parents may imagine that their children don’t get the double edged jokes; if that’s what they think, the joke’s on them” (Conrad, 2009). Shows like SpongeBob are widely watched by diverse audiences who consume these messages differently. Some children are being exposed to these messages at a vulnerable age, but in the end it is up to their parents to decide if it is of concern for their children to be watching content they find questionable.
Overall, children shows should be created for children. However, the reality is that adults are creating the content, and both children and adults are watching. Like many things in life, making money is the ultimate goal. For television and marketers, appealing to the older audience results in success. Therefore, children shows often contain subtle adult themes and humor, even at the expense of the children’s exposure to it.
"Adults Eye Kids Shows." Advertising Age 63.6 (1992): 26. Academic Search Elite. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
Barney Rubble from the Flintstones Needs 3 Heads? Perf. Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. The Flintstones. YouTube, 14 May 2007. Web. 1 May 2014. <Barney Rubble from the Flintstones Needs 3 Heads?>.
Conrad, Emily. "Social Mores and SpongeBob SquarePants." Webpages.shepherd.edu. N.p., 6 May 2009. Web. 1 May 2014.
Dirty Jokes in Spongebob. YouTube. SpongeBob SquarePants, 14 Oct. 2012. Web. 1 May 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nH-23yNmEg>.
"The Stretch (Home Front)." Rocky Mountain News. HighBeam Research, 15 Sept. 2001. Web.
Von Hoffman, Constantine. "Kid Shows Marketing Stars 'Adult' Themes." Brandweek 48.3 (2007): 4. Academic Search Elite. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.