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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Cartoon phenomenon not just attracting kids

By Gary Strauss
USA Today

Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants" is attracting an adult fan base that includes Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver and Jerry Lewis.

Gannett News Service

'SpongeBob SquarePants'

5 and 8 tonight, Nickelodeon

SpongeBob SquarePants is the unlikeliest of cartoon heroes — or marketing icons.

Aside from the oddball name, he is bucktoothed, has a voice that's a cross between Woody Woodpecker and Pee Wee Herman, and looks more like animated Swiss cheese than the sea sponge he's supposed to be.

Yet as the endearingly goofy title character of Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants," this short-order fry cook who lives in a pineapple in the undersea village of Bikini Bottom soaks up more viewers than any kids' show on television.

Soon after joining its prime-time lineup in July, "SpongeBob SquarePants" supplanted Nickelodeon's five-year ratings champ, "Rugrats." As it continues gaining momentum," SpongeBob SquarePants" is redefining the cartoon genre.

With much of the $500 million in SpongeBob-related merchandise expected to be purchased this year for 18-to-49 year-olds, the show's altering how marketers tie products to programming ostensibly geared to kids.

SpongeBob's riding a pop-culture tsunami that shows no sign of cresting. SpongeBob fan clubs are sprouting on college campuses from Texas to Michigan. When SpongeBob creator Steve Hillenburg announced last month that he'd leave to focus on a 2004 "SpongeBob SquarePants" motion picture, "Save SpongeBob!" petitions popped up on the Internet.

Fear not: Nickelodeon's stashing fresh episodes to last through 2003.

Hollywood elite from Bruce Willis to Sigourney Weaver are big fans. Jerry Lewis, whose comedic style SpongeBob emulates, is an aficionado. So is actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, who appears on the live-action portion of "SpongeBob's House Party."

Perhaps most surprising, though, is SpongeBob's strength as a marketing powerhouse. He's more cash cow than sponge: 10,000 separate SpongeBob-themed products are already being marketed by 75 licensees. They'll generate $500 million in 2002 retail sales — double early-year projections.

"That's an awfully good performance for stuff tied to a show in prime time less than a year," says Marty Brochstein, executive editor of The Licensing Letter, which tracks the $70 billion licensed-products industry.

"SpongeBob SquarePants" is also proving a substantial boost to Nickelodeon's advertising base and licensing revenue. Merchandise sales will generate about $25 million in licensing fees for corporate parent Viacom, says Leigh Anne Brodsky, head of Nickelodeon's consumer products division.

Nickelodeon doesn't sell advertising spots for specific shows, but SpongeBob has helped boost Nickelodeon's prime-time viewership 13 percent so far this year, which is likely to command higher across-the-board rates. Nickelodeon ad executive Jim Perry says as TV's top kids' show, SpongeBob's also opening deals and promotions with sponsors such as Target Stores and Wendy's.

He's not just for kids

While licensed merchandise tied to kids' shows is mostly sold for kids, only about one-third of SpongeBob-related merchandise is stuff for kids.

To be sure, these are hot children's sellers. "SpongeBob's Nautical Nonsense/Sponge Buddies" is the No. 2 selling children's DVD. SuperSponge is Sony's top Playstation title. Good Humor-Breyer's SpongeBob SquarePants ice cream bar outsells all other "face" bars, including longtime favorite Snoopy.

Mattel is selling about 75,000 Babbling SpongeBob dolls a week, outpacing sales of its Tickle Me Elmo doll, the industry standard for hot sellers, says spokeswoman Sarah Rosales. And this month, Wendy's is driving traffic at North American stores with SpongeBob paraphernalia in kids' meals.

But SpongeBob's burgeoning popularity among older viewers and consumers has been a pleasant surprise to Nickelodeon executives and their licensees, more accustomed to spinning kids' fare such as "Rugrats" and "Blue's Clues" into marketing gold.

"SpongeBob kind of snuck up on everybody connecting with such a broad-based audience," says Charles Riotto, head of the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association. "Nickelodeon is as good as anyone at reaping merchandising benefits from programming. What could be tricky for them here are the demographics.

Nickelodeon, after all, targets most programs to a core demographic of 6- to 11-year-olds. Among "SpongeBob SquarePants' " 56.1 million monthly viewers, media-tracker Nielsen found 13.3 million 9- to 14 year-olds and 18.6 million in the 18-to-49 category.

Many are like Pete Prodoehl of Oconomowoc, Wis., who got hooked watching with his daughters, Emma, 5, and Madeline, 3.

The 32-year-old Internet programmer admits to watching SpongeBob when the kids aren't around. "It's so out there, I haven't seen a show like it," says Prodoehl, who's hoping for some SpongeBob birthday booty.

Even trendy retailers such as Hot Topic, whose 346 mall-based outlets cater to 12- to 22-year-old suburban hipsters, are a bit shocked at SpongeBob's marketing muscle.

Cindy Levitt, Hot Topic marketing chief, says the chain prefers capitalizing on brief cultural trends and then jettisoning products before mass-marketers can clamor aboard and eventually render tie-in apparel and other merchandise uncool. Hot Topic customers began demanding SpongeBob items soon after the show's daytime premiere in 1999. When fans began pilfering promotional signs outside its retail outlets, Hot Topic decided that instead of getting rid of SpongeBob, it would build in-store SpongeBob boutiques and stock them with proprietary items such as SpongeBob-themed jewelry.

Rubie's Costume, one of the nation's largest costume marketers, figured SpongeBob would be strong among the 2- to 4-year-old set last Halloween.

"What surprised us is how it spread to all age groups," says sales chief Howard Beige, who expects big fall demand for adult-size SpongeBob costumes.

Target Stores began carrying exclusive lines of SpongeBob products, such as party goods, bedding and school supplies, as part of a back-to-school promotion in August. Yet adult apparel, such as men's loungewear, has been an especially strong seller, says Sally Mueller, who oversees Target's 12-category SpongeBob line.

Whetting appeal

So what makes SpongeBob so appealing as a TV star and marketing commodity? Borne out of the weirdly quixotic imagination of Hillenburg, he's unwaveringly cheerful, sweet and innocent, yet with a persona that hovers around the classic junior high-school geek.

Oblivious to the disdainful mocking by his sardonic next-door neighbor, an octopus named Squidward Tentacles, SpongeBob is undeniably proud of his slackerlike job at the Krusty Krab, a fast-food dive. His favorite hobby is jelly fishing. And his best friend, Patrick, is a dimwitted starfish.

His home, an undersea pineapple, is in Bikini Bottom, a setting that's kitschy Polynesian.

Most shows revolve around simple plots, like SpongeBob trying to shed his geeky image. Others revolve around his money-obsessed boss, Capt. Krabs, or the rants of Plankton, a tiny megalomaniac whose sole purpose in life appears to be world domination — or at the least, stealing the secret recipe for the Krusty Krab's tasty Krabby Patty Burgers.

Hillenburg, 40, first pitched the show to Nickelodeon in July 1996. The former marine science educator had spent much of his youth scuba diving, surfing and learning about tide-pool ecology.

After graduating from Humboldt State University in 1984, he taught youngsters at the Orange County Marine Institute. He went back to school to study animation and wound up at Nickelodeon, where he became creative director on the cartoon "Rocko's Modern Life."