In December 1999 Anheuser-Busch Companies, Inc., had the two best-selling beers in the United States and more than double the market share of any competitor. Despite a decade-long decline in sales, Budweiser, the company’s flagship brew, remained the country’s most popular alcoholic beverage, although, thanks largely to the growing consumer preference for reduced-calorie beer, Bud Light was poised to overtake the ‘‘King of Beers.’’
Anheuser-Busch already had the industry’s biggest and most successful advertising presence, but the Budweiser television campaign called ‘‘Whassup?!’’ resonated with a new, more youthful audience and became not just an industry award winner but also a pop-culture phenomenon.
The idea behind the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ commercials, developed for Anheuser-Busch by DDB Worldwide Chicago, was simple. In the initial spot, called ‘‘Whassup True,’’ four male friends, speaking over the phone, greeted one another with the slang phrase ‘‘Whassup?!’’ The answer— ‘‘Watching the game. Having a Bud’’— elicited the response ‘‘True, true,’’ before the conversation escalated into a chorus of ‘‘Whassups?!’’ delivered with mouths open, tongues protruding, and an air of intense glee.
‘‘It didn’t feel like advertising,’’ said DDB’s Don Pogany. ‘‘It seemed different than anything else. And it seemed to be totally what Bud is about: camaraderie and friendship and what guys do.’’ A second spot aired during the 2000 Super Bowl, and several more featuring the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ guys aired later in the winter. Each of the spots ended with the Budweiser logo against a black background and the tagline ‘‘True.’’
Within a few months of the campaign’s introduction, unauthorized Internet parodies began to appear that featured people in the news, cartoon superheroes, and many others greeting one another with innumerable variations on ‘‘Whassup?!’’ Disc jockeys and late-night talkshow hosts began saying ‘‘Whassup?!’’ and soon it became a common greeting and a pop-culture phrase around the world, even in countries where Budweiser was not sold. The initial campaign won nearly every major industry award, and later installments continued to win awards. ‘‘Whassup?!’’ ran through 2001 and was then developed into a more expansive campaign called ‘‘True,’’ in which the tagline from the original commercials was interpreted in new ways meant to show beer drinkers that Budweiser understood them and their lives.
Anheuser-Busch expected the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ ads to resonate across demographic lines within the 21- to 27-yearold segment of the population, an essential part of Budweiser’s larger target market of all legal-age drinkers. Not only did this segment of young adults account for a disproportionate percentage of beer sales relative to other adults, its brand loyalties had presumably not yet been formed. The spots featured a mostly African-American cast, and the campaign’s central verbal exchange was based on slang terms used in minority communities, although the universal principles of friendship that were displayed had the power, Anheuser-Busch believed, to attract young viewers across racial, ethnic, and gender divides. Barbara Lippert argued in Adweek that the ads were about ‘‘feeling so connected to your best buds you can watch TV together through the phone. And that while you are supposedly ‘chillin,’ you are all maniacally dialing each other.’’
Anheuser-Busch, however, wanted to avoid alienating older customers who did not understand the significance of the characters’ boisterous attitudes and protruding tongues. When a group of wholesalers expressed their disapproval of the emerging campaign, Lachky and Busch decided not to continue to air the original version but to showcase ‘‘Whassup?!’’ spots that relied on individual narratives and thereby helped viewers make sense of the characters. They also decided to trim the 60-second spots to 30 seconds in order to reduce the amount of time occupied by the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ ritual itself. Soon Internet parodies began, and the campaign attracted mainstream media attention. Once ‘‘Whassup?!’’ became part of the pop-culture vocabulary, the campaign had an air of widespread public validation that overcame all demographic divisions. As Advertising Age put it, ‘‘Any advertising that bridges generation gaps so that even our mothers are leaving ‘Whassup?!’ messages on our answering machines must be a good one.’’
THE QUESTION OF ORIGIN
After ‘‘Whassup?!’’ had won both the Grand Clio and the Cannes Grand Prix in 2000, there were complaints within the advertising industry. Some felt that it was inappropriate to give the industry’s highest honors to a campaign that had not originally come from an advertising agency at all. The idea, of course, was Charles Stone III’s, and the initial spot was similar to his independent film True. But Stone was not himself the sole author of the idea. ‘‘Whassup?!’’ was a greeting that he and his friends had been using with one another since 1984.
‘‘Whassup?!’’ had its genesis outside the advertising world in a short film called True, created by music-video director Charles Stone III as a means of trying to break into feature films. A DDB creative director discovered True and immediately recommended it to his supervisor as suitable for a Budweiser advertisement. The film, which became ‘‘Whassup True’’ after minor adjustments in content, featured Stone and three of his friends. Stone himself was tapped to direct and to act in the series of commercials DDB began scripting, and though roughly 80 other actors were auditioned for the parts of Stone’s friends, with one exception DDB hired the real-life friends to play themselves. Stone worried that the slang response ‘‘True’’ might need to be scrapped in favor of a more mainstream line like ‘‘Right on,’’ but Anheuser-Busch’s Lachky recognized the trend setting potential of the original.
‘‘Whassup True’’ originally aired with little fanfare on sports programming in December 1999. The 60-second commercial was a hit with the 21- to 27-yearold demographic, but for the 2000 Super Bowl Anheuser-Busch chose the shorter and less risky ‘‘Girlfriend,’’ in which one of the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ friends answered the phone in characteristic fashion while trying not to let on that the ‘‘game’’ he was watching with his girlfriend was actually a figure-skating competition. Other spots in the original campaign included one in which a pizza deliverer was mistaken for a friend and subjected, over an apartment-building intercom, to the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ routine. The spots eventually ran during sports programming, as well as prime-time and late-night shows.
After Internet parodies and media attention became widespread, ‘‘Whassup?!’’ was at risk of becoming overexposed, and Anheuser-Busch and DDB worked to keep the campaign fresh by running their own spoofs. In ‘‘Come Home’’ an alien, returning to his home planet after infiltrating Earth in the guise of a dog, was asked by his ruler what he had learned from his time among humans. After a short pause the alien declared, mouth wide and tongue lolling, ‘‘Whassup?!’’ In addition, DDB created a unique hybrid commercial called ‘‘Language Tape,’’ in which a professor-like character directed viewers to Budweiser.com, where they could learn how to say ‘‘Whassup?!’’ in 36 different languages. Website traffic increased to 1.265 million visitors per month, compared to the previous year’s average of 400,000.
Anheuser-Busch and DDB went on to run commercials featuring New Jersey men bearing a strong resemblance to characters on the hit television show The Sopranos, who said, ‘‘Howyoudoin,’’ instead of ‘‘Whassup?!’’ After this final twist on the original idea, Budweiser’s advertising agencies, along with its in-house marketing team, began producing various television spots that more broadly interpreted the tagline ‘‘True.’’ These spots included story lines offering honest and affectionate reflections on gender differences and male behavior, commercials with a focus on product quality, and several series of vignettes, such as the well-known ‘‘Leon’’ commercials, which revolved around the comical exploits of an extremely self-centered professional football player.
DDB Worldwide Chicago claimed to have pioneered the concept of ‘‘talk value,’’ that elusive quality that makes advertising campaigns and phrases cultural touchstones, but the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ campaign far exceeded the agency’s and Anheuser-Busch’s expectations. The phrase appeared as a headline on the cover of Forbes, and the commercials were parodied on Saturday Night Live in addition to being mentioned countless times in the media while being spread around the world via more than 80 homemade Internet parodies. At the 2000 Grammy Awards performers Christina Aguilera and LeVar Burton imitated the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ commercials on the red carpet, and during that year’s NBA season the Sacramento Kings gave a collective cry of ‘‘Whassup?!’’ after each team huddle.
Whassup?! /Scary Movie
Whassup?!/Super Mario Bros
Whassup?!/Bin Laden & George Bush
‘‘Whassup?!’’ was one of the most acclaimed and popular campaigns in advertising history. It won nearly every major award in the industry, including the prestigious Grand Clio and the Grand Prix at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France. During the second year of the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ campaign, Busch was named Advertiser of the Year at the Cannes festival. The campaign’s signature phrase earned comparisons to classic advertising phrases like Wendy’s ‘‘Where’s the Beef ?’’ and Nike’s ‘‘Just Do It.’’ Busch said of the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ campaign, ‘‘In our lifetimes, we’ll never see so much value created from a single idea. It makes Budweiser a brand for every culture, every demographic and every community. It makes Budweiser a younger, hipper, more contemporary brand.’’
The decline in Budweiser sales could not be stopped, however. Meanwhile, sales of Bud Light continued to grow at double-digit rates, and in 2001 it surpassed Budweiser to become the best-selling beer in the United States. Anheuser-Busch continued to dominate the domestic beer market. In 2000 the company increased shipments and sales by 2.8 percent, and in 2001 it likewise outperformed the industry, approaching a market share of nearly 50 percent. Budweiser’s umbrella ‘‘True’’ campaign, so memorably launched by the ‘‘Whassup?!’’ commercials, continued.
Advertising Agency: DDB Chicago
Creative Director: Bob Scarpelli
Copywriter: Charles Stone III
Art Director: Chuck Taylor
Production Company: C&C Storm Films
Director: Charles Stone III
Whassup?! For Obama
Its been eight long years since the boys said ‘Wassup’ to each other. Even with the effects of a down economy and imminent change in the White House, the boys are still able to come together and stay true to what really matters. The spot is in essence a public service announcement for President Obama’s message of change.
Advertising Agency: Believe Media
Creative Director: Charles Stone III
Director: Charles Stone III