There’s something magical about Saturday morning cartoons. As a kid, you sat in front of the television at the same time every week. You plopped yourself down, and by the time you looked away from the screen, hours had flown by. Even as an adult, you’re nostalgic for the animated characters of your youth.
How do they do it?
The genius of Saturday morning cartoons is that they’re able to tell so much with so little. Where an animated film uses up to 24 different drawings a second, these half-hour television programs had far lower budgets, and only had the resources to produce only around 3 or 4 a second—around 1/8th of the overall quality.
These cartoons had to be economically viable enough to produce into four hour blocks, from 8 am to 12 pm, while hitting it off with kids. And they did. In the '70s and '80s, Saturday morning cartoons could score up to twenty million kids tuning in per Saturday.
To do so successfully, they had to move beyond the limitations of animation and creatively produce strategies to engage and captivate the viewer behind the television screen. Let’s look at how they did so.
1. Take Your Visuals to the Extreme
Because they played on short-attention spans through brisk, speedy pacing and exaggerated gestures, Saturday morning cartoons drew the ire of parents across the globe. The death of the Saturday morning cartoon can be directly attributed to this mass outrage, as demands for “educational content” on television networks for children phased out the fun and games.
Really however, these cartoons in the '80s and '90s played upon new ways of telling stories and delivering narratives, and actually did so in a way that was far more effective than what followed. Watching cartoons, for example, is one of the best ways to learn a new language—they pair basic words with visual cues to communicate in an instantly relatable way that anyone can understand.
A study led by Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre showed that cartoons help children with autism improve “understanding and emotional recognition.” Children with autism have a difficult time registering facial expressions that indicate emotion, and Cohen’s hypothesis was that the exaggerated nature of cartoons are one of the big reasons why.
How Duolingo Cheerleads its Way into Your Life
Duolingo makes learning a new language fun, and they do it by dropping the subtlety and making their point loud and clear with a big, bold visual language.
The moment you see the screen, you’re encouraged. You know you’re doing well because the Duolingo owl logo is wearing sunglasses and you see bright colors throughout.
The graph isn’t mathy and precise, like something you’d get from Excel or Matlab. All I need to know is that it’s clearly showing a trajectory upwards. Duolingo taps into our psychological need to fill progress bars, but doesn’t make it a frantic race to keep going.
In the end, the screen is actually about a slight improvement—I’ve only added 10 experience points since I last logged in. But it’s with this exaggerated visual language that the app tells me that I’m on the right path, following the narrative it’s setting out.
2. Surprise Your Way to the Aha! Moments
When we watch a cartoon like Tom & Jerry, we always know exactly what’s going to happen. Tom will set a trap for Jerry and try to catch him before Jerry uses his cunning to promptly turns the tables each and every time.
There’s a very good reason why this kind of cartoonish slapstick comedy doesn’t grow old over time—even though it’s always the same, it’s also constantly showing us something new. The same story can be retold again and again, as long as it’s in a slightly different time.
What’s more important is that element of surprise, the feeling of being on the hook. In every episode of Tom & Jerry, we wait on our toes, even though—and perhaps because—we know exactly what’s about to happen.
It’s the fundamental storytelling principles of staging and anticipation that Saturday morning cartoons like Tom & Jerry make use of so well.
Tom chases Jerry into a dollhouse, and when Tom opens the blinds, he sees Jerry taking a shower. The stage is set, as it is nearly every time—Tom confronts Jerry to catch him, and Jerry is about to turn the tables on him.
Anticipation builds as Jerry sings in the shower and uses the shower brush to clean himself, oblivious to Tom’s face in the window. When Jerry sees Tom, he screams! And we know what’s coming next. When Jerry takes the shower brush and smacks Tom the nose with it, we’re satisfied, delighted even, though we knew it was coming all along.
We’re addicted, and we can’t wait until it happens again.
How Canva Consistently Reiterates Value
Canva makes it easy to do graphic design on the web, but they manage to do it in a way that feels more like a fun app you’d use like Snapchat than a utility you’d use like Photoshop.
Whenever you use Canva, you travel through a streamlined workflow. You know where you’re going—you’re going to add images, text and arrange it all together. And you have an idea of the end result—it’s going to be a poster, web graphic, or logo.
But instead of just playing things straight, Canva offers you a ridiculous among of options in creating your graphics, many of which are silly and fun. They include a green The Mask-style fedora which you can drop on to the head of a monkey.
With all of those options, you end up creating something new every time, even if you follow the same formula and process. You’re often amused and delighted by where the innumerable combinations and your own creativity can take you.
Like in Tom & Jerry, what you end up with is a predictable surprise, and that delivers to you the “aha” moment every time, even if you know it’s coming.
3. Turn Sounds into Triggers
It’s remarkable how cartoons like Wile E. Coyote are able to keep engaged viewerships, without any language or linguistic devices at all. There’s no dialogue at all, just music and sound.
They show us that you with an evocative and creative use of aural storytelling, combining with the visual and careful psychological triggers, that you can do more with less. In fact, a lot of times, words only get in our way.
That’s how Road Runner’s simple noise, “meep meep” became totally synonymous with the character. It’s part of the minimal visual language that’s associated with Road Runner, so that when Wile E. Coyote and the audience hears the sound, everyone knows that the Road Runner is near.
Still, the sounds are very distinctively tailored to the characters and moments for which they’re used. For instance, Road Runner’s signature beep was “inspired by hearing a Doppler-like effect as background artist Paul Julian imitated a car horn when he could not see where he was going.” Far from being generic, they’re distinctive because of how specific and appropriate they are.
In that sense, the sounds that Saturday morning cartoons use are often nearly Pavlovian, and they’re what turn simple sounds into iconic associations that entire generations recognize.
How Slack Keeps Us Tuned In
Most apps totally ignore sound.
But rather than pull in stock noise for notifications like your typical ding, Slack created its own very distinctive auditory stamp. When you receive a direct message or an at-mention, you hear the sound of the knock brush.
It’s a sound so beloved that it’s inspired Wistia—a video hosting service for businesses that switched from HipChat to Slack in 2015—to create a video homage to Slack’s knock brush sound.
Like Road Runner’s “meep meep,” the knock brush always coincides with the arrival of an important moment. That makes it a powerful trigger to immediately switch over to Slack and check your notifications, and you’ll do that even unconsciously, when you’re not looking for or really in need of new information.
From Habit to Ritual
What makes Saturday morning cartoons such a rich ground for understanding user engagement is that they’re incredibly formulaic. They provide a highly consistent experience, but they do it in a way that doesn’t take away from their ability to delight and entertain.
It’s in their consistency that they become more than ordinary TV shows—they form a ritual shared by generations of children across the U.S. Bring these patterns of user engagement into your app, and you’ll create magical experiences that create memorable and lasting impressions.