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'Whassup?' ad becomes part of pop culture

NEW YORK — 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 commercial for Budweiser beer, Anheuser-Busch succeeded in taking advertising's hottest series of commercials — the "Whassup?" campaign — 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 award, and its signature catch phrase has entered the vernacular. "Whassup?" is joked about on talk shows, parodied on Web sites and mimicked in other commercials — even another Budweiser "Whassup?" ad that pokes fun at uptight yuppies trying to adopt a cool attitude.

And, most important of all, the campaign has helped Anheuser-Busch, the nation's largest brewer, sell more beer. Its sales grew by 2.4 million barrels to 99.2 million barrels last year, according to Beer Marketer's Insights, a Nanuet, N.Y., trade newsletter.

What is perhaps most unusual about the success of Budweiser's "Whassup?" campaign is that it is not unusual — at least not for Anheuser-Busch and its advertising agency, DDB Chicago. 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 20-something audience. 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 consciousness.

The best advertising captures something so true that it ultimately becomes a shorthand for a feeling or a state of mind, like the Energizer bunny or the saying, "Where's the beef?" says Bob Scarpelli, DDB's chief creative officer in the United States.

To achieve this status, 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 term?

"I call it the Letterman or the Leno factor, these guys are our arbiters of public taste," 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 a 34-year-old music video director, Charles Stone III. Called "True," the film shows Stone and his real life 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.

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 saw that DDB understood the film and would maintain its integrity and intentions. He was also asked to stay on as director, and he has directed nearly all of the spots.

There were some creative struggles. To cast the spot, the agency interviewed about 80 actors before going with Stone's suggestions 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," believing at the time that some people might not understand its use. True won out eventually.

The first spot was broadcast on Christmas Day, 1999, without much fanfare. In fact, 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 years old, but consumers over 35 often just didn't get what all the tongue-wagging was about, said Bob Lachky, the company's vice president for brand management.

The brewer decided not to run the original "Whassup?" spot, but used instead an easier-to-understand commercial about a "Whassup?" guy 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 Rex the Dog that won all the accolades from the public and the press. Still, Anheuser-Busch continued to run a variety of "Whassup?" spots during sports programming throughout the winter.

Then "Whassup?" caught on. Pogany said he started to hear the phrase being used while he was out in public. And then, as Scarpelli hoped, "Whassup?" started to be uttered on late-night TV, by radio 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 Elian Gonzalez to the South Park characters. None of the sites was sanctioned by Anheuser-Busch.

"Other traditional advertisers might've seen these 'Whassup?' rip-offs and said 'cease and desist,' " said Lachky. "But we said, 'Stop? What are you crazy? This is great, this idea is cool and Bud is an integral part of it.' The Internet played a huge part of its success, and you can never really plan that. That's good luck."

By March, "Whassup?" was such a huge 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 stories and newspaper articles. That does not include publicity garnered on the Internet, which the agency said it has 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, said Scarpelli.

"Whassup?" is now going global. The international campaign began last fall in London, and the spots are being tested in Japan.

The success of the "Whassup?" campaign has changed 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 the United Kingdom 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," said Stone. "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. Lachky said that Budweiser is monitoring "Whassup?" to prevent over-saturation, but he believes the campaign has some time to run.

"You do have to be out of it before it gets tired," said Lachky. "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-1990s all the way back to the 1980s heyday of Spuds MacKenzie, a Budweiser spokesdog who was created with the help of none other than Scarpelli, a young copywriter at the time.