Whassup now with all those award wins?

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By now, everyone knows DDB Worldwide's "Whass-up" spots for Budweiser have been mopping up on the awards circuit recently -- first at the Clios and then at the Cannes International Advertising Festival.

Since then there's been some controversy about these awards going to the "Whassup" campaign since the idea is borrowed, not in part but in full, from Charles Stone III's short film "True."

There's certainly been no attempt on the agency's part to hide that fact. Mr. Stone himself was called in to direct the Bud spots. He stars in the spots. And with the exception of one of the actors, all of the "Whassup Guys" are friends of Mr. Stone's from Philadelphia who worked on his original short film project.

The idea for the "Whassup" spots and the film "True" are one and the same, except of course, for the Budweisers the guys are now clutching -- cold, sweaty labels conspicuously turned towards the camera.


The complaint from some quarters within the ad industry is that, with the Clios and Cannes Lions, we've bestowed our highest creative honors on a campaign, and an idea, of which not even a germ of its origin came from an advertising agency.

There's a certain validity to that gripe. It's a sad commentary that what we're now holding up as the very best the advertising industry has to offer didn't come from the minds of a creative team at DDB, or any other agency. But for the controversy surrounding these spots to focus merely on the issue of authorship misses a far more important point.


What's controversial isn't that the idea for the "Whassup" ads came from outside the ad industry. The real outrage is that these ads simply are not the best work our industry has to offer. Not by a long shot.

The reality is that practically every advertising idea is "borrowed" in some form or fashion. It happens every day, in every ad agency around the world; and anyone who says it doesn't isn't being honest with themselves.

It's nothing we have to get defensive about. It's not like ad agencies suddenly discovered that all the good ideas had already been done. The simple fact is we're in a business of culture, and in many respects, grafting our clients' brands to those things that are "cool" within it -- music, TV, film, books, current events, whatever.

Good advertising ideas don't happen in a vacuum, they come from all around us. Many times, the best of them are inspired by sources from outside the advertising business. Done properly, this can be a good thing.

The "1984" spot used to launch the Apple Macintosh is a great example. A literal interpretation of George Orwell's book. A borrowed idea. Yet arguably one of the greatest TV spots ever produced. The key is Chiat/Day interpreted George Orwell's work in a new way that said something truly powerful about what Apple stands for vs. IBM. The spot made a bold, sweeping promise to consumers about the Macintosh. This computer had the power to change everything. So, like "Whassup," here's an example of a wonderfully entertaining TV spot, rooted entirely in someone else's work.


Was the ad industry incensed with Chiat/Day when "1984" took home armloads of creative awards and accolades? Of course not, because "1984" was a great, brand-building TV spot. Sixteen years later, it still shapes the way people think about Apple as a brand. It doesn't matter where the idea originated, the only relevant issue in debating the merits of "1984," "Whassup" or any other campaign is whether or not they're great ads.

What will we think of the "Whassup" campaign 16 years from now? Will we even think of these ads at all? Will "Whassup," like "1984," go down as one of the greatest TV spots of all time? Or will it simply end up on the ash heap of discarded jingles, mascots, catchphrases and assorted whippersnappers Anheuser-Busch has used to peddle so much liquid refreshment over the years.

The dogs, the ants, the frogs, lizards and penguins . . . "I Love You, Man," "Ladies Night," "Yes, I Am." Does the "Whassup" campaign possess even a fraction of the long-term brand building power of that one Apple TV spot, which aired only once, 16 years ago?

No. In truth, "Whassup" is about as enduring as a run-of-the-mill sketch on "Saturday Night Live" that gets extended to another show, then into another season, until eventually it's made into a movie. And we all know that by that time, the gag is so old and tired, we've moved on as a culture to the next run-of-the-mill sketch on "SNL."


I'm not denying that the "Whass-up" ads are funny, entertaining and memorable. But should the popular entertainment value of a TV campaign alone determine its worthiness of our industry's highest honors? I mean, hey, I loved "Austin Powers" as much as the next guy. It was a terrific movie -- funny, entertaining, memorable and eminently quotable. It just didn't deserve the Oscar for Best Picture.

The problem with "Whassup" isn't that the idea came from Charles Stone's film, it's that it doesn't say anything remotely important or enduring about Budweiser as a brand that we haven't already heard from the Anheuser-Busch Animal Kingdom & Catchphrase Factory. Funny? Entertaining? Memorable? Phenomenally popular? "Whassup" is all of those things. But it is not great brand-building advertising, in the way, for instance, Arnold's work for Volkswagen is a great campaign. It's not even close.

To call the "Whassup" ads the very best this industry has to offer is an embarrassment. And it stands as an insult to everyone in the advertising business who is out there working their asses off every day to do truly great advertising that build brands for the long term.

Mr. Graham is partner-account exec at Core, St. Louis.

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