The marketing of products to children is a dirty business, no doubt, but SpongeBob’s economic buoyancy has a very pure relation to his character and pursuits. The sponge is a one-man stimulus package, not just commercially but morally. If consumer confidence had a face, it would be the gleaming, avid face of SpongeBob SquarePants.
“SpongeBob is one of the greatest believers in the American dream in all of children’s entertainment,” says Greg Rowland, whose consultancy, Greg Rowland Semiotics, has performed brand analyses for Unilever, KFC, and Coca-Cola. “He’s courageous, he’s optimistic, he’s representing everything that Mickey Mouse should have represented but never did. There’s even something Jesus-like about him—a 9-year-old Jesus after 15 packets of Junior Mints.”
He made his debut on Nickelodeon on May 1, 1999, in a pilot episode called “Help Wanted.” The plot: a young sea sponge applies for a job at a grungy ocean-bottom diner called the Krusty Krab. Oh, how he wants this job—the position of fry cook represents the summit of his ambition. He is shaped, fortuitously, like a kitchen sponge. “I’m rea-dy! I’m rea-dy!” he chirrups, eyes and toecaps shining, while a moron starfish called Patrick cheers him on. The interview doesn’t go well: he is sniggered at, talked down to. Guess what, though? When the Krusty Krab is invaded by a mob of violently hungry anchovies, it is SpongeBob who saves the day, volleying Krabby Patties at incredible speed through the kitchen hatch and straight into their astonished pieholes. Hooray! “That was the finest fast-foodsmanship I’ve ever seen, Mr. SquarePants!” beams Mr. Krabs, the owner. “Welcome aboard!”
Contained in this nine-minute skit is the complete DNA of SpongeBob’s rise to power. His industrial ardor, his outrageous spatula skills, the terrible, idiotic brightness of his eyes. The atmosphere at the Krusty Krab has the monochrome tint of a Gen X workplace satire, a Clerks or an Office Space; Mr. Krabs cackles over his money, while Squidward, the tentacled sourpuss at the register, droops with ennui. But SpongeBob’s professional life is rainbow-colored. More than an adventure, it is a romance. “What is taking you so long?!” complains Squidward, head through the hatch, in an episode called “The Original Fry Cook.” “I’m adding the love!” says SpongeBob happily, squirting a little valentine of ketchup onto his latest Krabby Patty. Take that, Karl Marx!
So passionate an investment in the act of production brings its own risks, of course. In “To Love a Patty,” SpongeBob finds himself unable to send an especially attractive patty through the hatch. “Such perfection,” he murmurs. “From your little lettuce hair to your rosy ketchup cheeks, right down to your mustard smile.” He cannot part with it; he must take the patty home and cherish it, spend time with it, talk to it, even unto madness.