Why you should care

Because SpongeBob SquarePants could be a commie’s secret weapon.

Vladimir Putin didn’t think twice about murdering his corrupt bureaucrats in cold blood: a senior adviser bludgeoned to death by a robo-bus, an environment minister sawed into dust and a construction official decapitated by a giant claw crane. The scenes are graphic — even for childish cartoons.

The violent video series looks more like a raunchy Family Guy spoof than pro-Kremlin propaganda brought to you by the All-Russia People’s Front, a political organization founded by Putin. And it turns out that Russia is not alone in taking the Cartoon Network approach to indoctrinating the proletariat and consolidating power — other communist countries are also poaching your favorite superheroes and enlisting them in the glorious cause of state loyalty. In China, the Ministry of State Security uses your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, Batman, Superman and SpongeBob in a four-minute online short to instruct citizens on safeguarding national secrets and identifying espionage. In North Korea, a leaked video depicts furry animal friends that represent different nations trying to slaughter each other (spoiler alert: The American white crane dies first). Meanwhile, back in Russia, orphaned heroes fight off cartoon wizards backed by NATO in an epic animated adventure.

If I’ve ever been moved by such propaganda, it’s only been to the nearest exit.

David Culbert, history professor, Louisiana State University

Farewell, Rosie the Riveter. The in-house creative firms that produced these films declined to discuss the size of their audiences, copyright issues or revenue figures, but the videos have earned millions from views on YouTube and equivalent sites in Russia and China; other videos have been broadcast dozens of times on state-owned television. The move into more whimsical material is the way of the future, says Brian Anse Patrick, the author of The Ten Commandments of Propaganda. The most effective kind of propaganda, Patrick explains, subtly feeds your mind, and cartoons are “junk food for the soul.” It’s all empty calories, for sure, but the artificial flavoring leaves you craving more.

The playful rebrand isn’t geared just for younger audiences; it also reflects some deeper soul-searching within ruling elites. The same old propaganda on the war posters of yesteryear is getting stale while the messages have long fallen on deaf ears, says Sharon Stratton of the Seoul-based North Korea Strategy Center. So, to stay hip, the world’s most prolific propaganda machines are giving their arsenal a much-needed weapon for the Digital Age by creating videos that the communist regimes hope will go viral. Yet unlike the stock propaganda of the past, these fresh-faced cartoons don’t openly wear their didactic mission. So, even though the packaging looks new and more irreverent, the message inside retains the usual orthodoxy, according to Nicholas O’Shaughnessy, a communications professor at Queen Mary University of London. “You have to sugar the pill” and quietly creep under people’s cognitive defenses, he says.

Granted, the visual sleight of hand isn’t entirely new, and it isn’t exclusive to communist regimes. In the 1940s, Looney Toons churned out cartoon propaganda during World War II when all hands were on deck — even Hollywood’s. To bolster the war effort, Walt Disney turned his fun-loving characters into loyal comrades-in-arms in Donald Gets Drafted (1942), Commando Duck (1944) and other short films. Apparently, these old-school cartoonists turned propagandists were on to something: Presenting state dogma as something lighthearted can get people to listen, or at least not tune out the messages.

Some communication and history experts, including David Culbert, who researches mass media and propaganda at Louisiana State University, warn that the West may minimize or even overlook the propaganda because it’s delivered in palatable, cheerful ways. For example, some viewers might miss the subtle messages, like the power of the collective over the influence of the individual, buried inside North Korea’s popular cartoon series Squirrel and Hedgehog. Moreover, a cute critter wearing a red Kim Jong-un pin on its chest, no matter how cuddly, could trivialize a serious subject — how to proudly serve and defend your country. “If I’ve ever been moved by such propaganda, it’s only been to the nearest exit,” adds Culbert.

As innocuous as these cartoons may appear, the kryptonite power of propaganda deserves serious attention. These cutesy cartoons are designed to leave a lasting mark while flying under the radar, not unlike a caped hero in disguise. Besides, even Superman and Spider-Man know the value of good publicity.

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