Is it just free advertising?

Gen Z has spent the last two weeks waxing nostalgic over Adult Swim, the late-night adult programming block that runs after hours on Cartoon Network. In a trend started by content creator Vano 3000, TikTokkers have been recreating the block’s iconic interstitial bumps in creative ways: using spilt milk, post-it notes, and tattoos, among other things, to showcase the brand’s “[adult swim]” logo to the tune of Vano 3000’s remix of “Time Moves Slow” by the Canadian jazz group and production team BADBADNOTGOOD.

Adult Swim began using bumps to let parents know that the network was no longer playing the kids-oriented programming of Cartoon Network, according to Tricia Melton, the Chief Marketing Officer of Warner Bros Kids, Young Adult, and Classics (of which Adult Swim is a part). But by now, she said, the bumps have “quickly evolved into a way for us to, very personally, talk to the audience.” The first bump aired in 2003, and the network has since premiered over 20,000 of them, all of them varying wildly in theme and style.

The typical bump features snappy, irreverent text either on a plain black background or strange, random images taken by Adult Swim staff. They always feature the lowercase Adult Swim text logo in brackets, often hidden somewhere in the image.

It’s a pretty barebones, if funny, style. What has made it into TikTok catnip? One creator summed it up: “It was just so deeply creative,” said Ella Bergdoll-Oberha, a tattoo artist whose take on the trend, in which they permanently tattoo someone with the “[as]” logo, currently boasts 8.4 million views. “And it’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen on TikTok, like, ever.”

Since the first TikTok mimicking the Adult Swim bumps was posted on June 4, over 350,000 users have used Vano 3000’s sound to contribute their own version of the trend. The hashtag #adultswim has more than 2.5 billion views on the app.

“We noticed pretty quickly after the first one got posted and started [gaining] traction,” Melton said. “And so, for the weekend, we were tracking it, watching it, loving it, amazed, and delighted at the creativity of our fans and the love that they have for the brand.”

The trend’s most popular video thus far, created by user @okyanger and featuring the “[as]” logo made up of an elaborate collage of post-it notes, has racked up over 13.1 million views and 2.9 million likes since it was posted, also on June 4.

“I think it’s especially good of a trend because of the TikTok format of the ‘For You’ page, so it kind of acts as a commercial break … as you’re scrolling between different TikToks,” TikTokker Hadi Rihawi said. In his take on the Adult Swim trend, he hides the company’s logo in a complicated mess of math formulas on a whiteboard. The video currently has more than 4.5 million views.

But with Adult Swim’s own PR gleefully noticing, the trend may have become more than simple TikTok fun. In a way, these creators have been making what is essentially free advertising for Adult Swim (not that it needs the help, as a massive brand and reportedly the number-one television network for people aged 18-49).

Some TikTokkers indulging in the trend don’t seem to mind the capitalist underpinnings.

“It’s free publicity and it’s free advertisement on their end, but it happened organically and I think that’s why I like it so much,” said Bobby Douglas, whose own Adult Swim video features him tattooing his own leg and has 11.8 million views. “It wasn’t like … ‘Hey! Advertise our company for free. And one of you will get the spoils.’ I think that’s where a lot of people would get a little jaded.”

“I think it’s cool that it happened rather than it didn’t happen because everyone loved the trend and everyone loved the videos,” added TikTokker Will Mahoney. “I, at least, wasn’t thinking like, ‘Oh, this is a big marketing scheme,’ because it was actually enjoyable.”

In a break from the more sarcastic style of the majority of Adult Swim bumps, Mahoney’s take on the trend is a plea for viewers to clean their room. His message, which the influencer has made into his brand, garnered 3.2 million views and started a whole other trend, in which users sent Mahoney pictures of their now-clean rooms in exchange for $5.

For many on TikTok who are loving the parody bumps, any potential ickiness is mitigated by Adult Swim’s general air of irreverence and branding. Its standing as the edgy counterpart to mainstream adult programming has helped creators justify the time and energy spent creating these unique odes to the brand.

“It’s so funny, because I don’t know if Adult Swim is owned by some giant conglomerate and they’re actually like, super fucked up,” Bergdoll-Oberha said. “From my understanding, they were kind of always very tongue in cheek, which was fun as a kid. … I guess that’s why people felt comfortable [making these videos].”

“Like, if I had seen this trend with CVS, I would have never done it,” they added.

On June 5, the Adult Swim TikTok account even joined in on the trend. “We’ve been talking to you like this for a long time. It’s nice to see you talking back to us,” the video says. “Let’s keep it going.” As of June 16, that video is the most watched TikTok on Adult Swim’s account, coming in at 24.6 million views, and has gained the network more than 1.2 million more TikTok followers.

“That just was like more fuel to fire. People just love that,” Melton said of Adult Swim’s take on the meme.

Some of the trend’s creators, like Mahoney, found the response from the network “iffy” because it encouraged more free promotion, but others saw the video as validation of the trend or just didn’t really mind the brand getting in on the fun, like Bergdoll-Oberha.

“I think it would be different if they had never made those [bumps] to begin with. … Maybe [then] I’d feel some type of way,” they said.

And with such a popular trend, creators get a taste of the boosted publicity too. For many of them, like Bergdoll-Oberha, Douglas, and Rihawi, the Adult Swim videos are the highest-viewed ones on their pages, and their videos have brought thousands of new followers with them. When TikTok is part of the job description, like it is for Bergdoll-Oberha, who works as a full-time artist and uses TikTok to increase their clientele and name recognition, that increased traffic is big.

As Mahoney said, “As much as [Adult Swim] benefits from it, we as creators also benefit from it. … A bunch of new creative people have gotten a lot of recognition.”

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