After being beamed up to an alien spaceship,
a family pet takes off his dog suit to reveal that he is an
alien creature himself. "What have you learned?"
his leader asks. The creature pauses to think, then responds
"Whassup?" with his tongue lolling out of his mouth.
With this Super Bowl advertisement for Budweiser beer and
another "Whassup" spot that pokes fun at uptight
yuppies trying to adopt a cool attitude, Anheuser- Busch succeeded
in taking advertising's hottest series of commercials into
a new year. That is a considerable feat in a business where,
like the movie industry, sequels are rarely as entertaining
and popular as the original.
The Whassup campaign has won practically every award in advertising,
including the prestigious international Grand Prix, and its
signature catch phrase is joked about on talk shows, parodied
on Web sites and mimicked in other commercials.
And, most important to Anheuser-Busch, the nation's largest
brewer, the campaign has helped it sell more beer, not just
Budweiser but its light beer, Bud Light. The company's worldwide
sales grew by 2.4 million barrels, to 99.2 million barrels
last year, according to Beer Marketer's Insights, a trade
newsletter in Nanuet, N.Y.
What is perhaps most unusual about the success of the Whassup
campaign is that it is not unusual at least not for
Anheuser-Busch and its advertising agency, the Chicago office
of DDB Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group. The team uses
sophisticated research and old- fashioned legwork like
checking out new art forms or going to underground film festivals
to anticipate what is about to become hip to its target
audience of mostly men in their 20's and 30's. The language,
styles and attitudes it finds are then packaged in ad campaigns
that are broadcast so often that they become part of the public
Ad campaigns for Bud Light have also been pop culture hits,
with well-known catch phrases like "I love you, man"
and "Yes, I am." And the agency has already won
acclaim for a new series of Bud Light ads that went on the
air last month featuring a chubby comedian named Cedric the
"Certainly, the advertising is part of the success,"
said Benj Steinman, publisher of Beer Marketer's Insights.
"It's a phenomenon."
Bob Scarpelli, DDB's chief creative officer in the United
States, calls it advertising with "talk value"
another phrase for creating buzz, that all-important intangible
quality that with enough media exposure begins to seep into
the culture. The idea, built into the creative process, is
to develop commercials that people chat about at work after
a big game or use in a punch line at a party. And then, with
some luck, it becomes part of the vernacular, he said. While
DDB did not invent the idea of talk value (though it has trademarked
that phrase), its effort to deconstruct the phenomenon underlying
it seems to be working.
Mr. Scarpelli said the battle for consumers' attention required
that commercials create an emotional reaction more memorable
than in all the competitors, including situation comedies
and the evening news.
The best advertising, he said, captures something so true
that it ultimately becomes a shorthand for a feeling or a
state of mind, like the Energizer bunny for endurance or the
saying, "Where's the beef?" for substance.
To achieve this status, Mr. Scarpelli instructs DDB's writers
and artists to be keen observers and judges
of pop culture. When creating advertising, they should consider
whether it could make it onto David Letterman's "Top
10" list or be used in a Jay Leno monologue, he said.
Will it get picked up on the Internet? Will disc jockeys start
using the ad's catch phrases?
"I call it the Letterman or the Leno factor, these guys
are our arbiters of public taste," Mr. Scarpelli said.
"We try to create ideas that become part of people's
consciousness so that the brand is always top of mind."
Whassup passed that test. The campaign came from a short
film created by Charles Stone III, 34, a music video director.
Called "True," the film shows Mr. Stone and his
friends from the Philadelphia area where he was raised, greeting
one another with the slang phrase "Whassup"
always with their mouths wide open and tongues wagging. They
then respond, "Nothin', watchin' the game" while
the other nods and says, "True, true."
The video had already developed a reputation in the independent
film scene when a copy made its way to Vinny Warren, the associate
creative director on the Budweiser account at DDB Chicago
in October 1999. DDB was trying to come up with new ideas
for Budweiser commercials on the Super Bowl, the world's advertising
showcase. Anheuser-Busch is always one of the game's biggest
advertisers, and each year DDB competes vigorously with the
brewer's other agencies to get the most commercials on the
broadcast. In addition to DDB, Anheuser-Busch works with 13
other agencies, though only a handful compete for Super Bowl
Mr. Warren immediately brought "True" to his supervisor,
Don Pogany, DDB Chicago's group creative director.
"Vinny recognized right away that it could be a Bud
spot," Mr. Pogany said. "It didn't feel like advertising.
It seemed different than anything else. And it seemed to be
totally what Bud is about: camaraderie and friendship and
what guys do. It was a way to illustrate male bonding in a
simple fresh way."
But to sell it to the client, Mr. Pogany said the idea had
to have legs. It needed to be developed into more than a single
spot and they immediately began to create ideas to extend
Whassup into a whole range of vignettes. The first thing they
did was decide the answer to the question "Whassup?"
should be, "Watchin' the game, havin' a Bud." They
even scripted several complete spots.
At an impromptu meeting at the bar in the Ritz- Carlton Hotel
in Chicago, the team presented the idea to August Busch IV,
Anheuser-Busch's 36-year-old vice president for marketing.
Mr. Pogany said he and Mr. Warren spoke the parts from memory
and showed him grainy footage on a tiny video player with
a three-inch screen.
"There were these fuzzy images and these guys sticking
their tongues out," Mr. Pogany said. "But he gave
us the license to go and see what we could do."
Mr. Stone said he never considered "True" for advertising
when he was making the film, which he created as his calling
card to break into feature film directing. But he understood
that DDB would maintain its intentions. He was also asked
to stay on as director, and has directed nearly all of the
There were some creative struggles. To cast the spot, the
agency interviewed about 80 actors before agreeing with Mr.
Stone's suggestion of simply using himself and his friends,
as in the original film. In the end, one friend who appeared
in the original film turned down the commercial and was replaced
by an actor. The agency also considered changing the slang,
"true, true" to the grammatically correct term,
"right," thinking at the time that some people might
not understand its use. True won out.
The first spot was broadcast on Christmas Day in 1999, without
much fanfare. When it came time to pick spots for the Super
Bowl five weeks later, Anheuser- Busch uncovered some problems.
In tests among 600 consumers in four cities over two weeks,
Whassup ads resonated with Budweiser's target audience of
young people 21 to 27 but consumers over 35 often did not
get what all the tongue-wagging was about, said Bob Lachky,
the company's vice president for brand management.
The company decided not to run the original Whassup spot,
but used instead an easier-to-understand commercial about
a Whassup character trying to cover up that he was spending
time watching figure skating with his girlfriend.
The spot was one of seven commercials that Anheuser-Busch
ran during the 2000 Super Bowl, but it was another DDB spot
for Bud Light featuring a fictional Hollywood stunt dog that
won all the accolades. Still, Anheuser-Busch continued to
run a variety of Whassup spots during sports programming throughout
Then Whassup caught on. Mr. Pogany said he started to hear
the phrase being used in public. And then, as Mr. Scarpelli
hoped, Whassup began to be uttered on late- night TV, by disc
jockeys and soon in the media in general. The Internet really
caused the phrase to fly. Suddenly, sites were going up on
the Internet with parodies of Whassup using everything from
people in the news like Elián González to the
"South Park" characters. None of the sites were
sanctioned by Anheuser- Busch.
"Other traditional advertisers might have seen these
Whassup rip-offs and said `cease and desist,' " Mr. Lachky
said. "But we said, `Stop? What, are you crazy? This
is great, this idea is cool, and Bud is an integral part of
"The Internet played a huge part of its success,"
he added, "and you can never really plan that. That's
By March, Whassup was such a hit that the actors were in
demand on the promotional trail, and Anheuser- Busch made
full use of them at events sponsored by Budweiser, from the
World Series to the Super Bowl. In September, DDB estimated
that Whassup had generated $20 million in free publicity,
based on the number of times the phrase appeared in TV news
features and newspaper articles. That does not including publicity
garnered on the Internet, which the agency said it had no
way of tracking.
DDB, meanwhile, continued to come up with new spots. "Wasabi"
is a spoof on Whassup at a Japanese sushi restaurant. Another
showed Whassup spoken in other languages, and directed viewers
to the Budweiser Web site to download Whassup in 36 languages.
The site was inundated with hits, Mr. Scarpelli said.
Whassup has gone global. The international campaign began
last fall in London, and the spots are being tested in Japan.
The success of the campaign has changed Mr. Stone's life.
He is now a hot commodity in advertising no easy feat
for an African-American director. He has since worked on commercials
in Britain and is pitching a commercial project in Germany.
He recently finished directing his first feature film, a dark
drama set in Harlem, that is scheduled to be released by Dimension
Films, a unit of Miramax.
" Whassup legitimized me commercially," Mr. Stone
said. "I'm now a viable person who can obviously do advertising."
But is it all too much of a good thing? More than ever, advertising
ideas burn fast and fade faster. Mr. Lachky said that Budweiser
was monitoring Whassup to prevent oversaturation, and that
is why the two spots during the Super Bowl last month were
a surprising departure from the usual Whassup story line about
guys bonding. Still, Mr. Lachky said, the campaign had some
time to run.
"You do have to be out of it before it gets tired,"
Mr. Lachky said. "Our own instincts right now indicate
it's not overstaying its welcome. It will probably run another
six months to a year, then gently float off into sunset."
Budweiser has some experience in this area, from the talking
frogs of the mid-1990's to the 1980's heyday of Spuds MacKenzie,
a Budweiser "spokesdog" who was created with the
help of none other than Mr. Scarpelli, a young copywriter
at the time.
Patricia Winters Lauro, The New York Times. February 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.