Budweiser has all Cannes asking Whassssupppppp?

By Published on .

Marketer: Anheuser-Busch
Agency: DDB Worldwide, Chicago
Rating: Three and a half stars

Cannes--Oh. That's what's up.

The long-awaited answer to Budweiser's funky, persistent salutation/question is: the International Advertising Festival Grand Prix.

The weird little short film with the all-black cast that became a weird little spec-ad spot about beer and male bonding that became a national catchphrase that became the centerpiece of Bud's sports-programming advertising campaign has vaulted still further into the pop-culture pantheon by charming an international jury into submission.

OK, and us, too.

Back in January, shortly after the campaign broke, we awarded it three stars in our Super Bowl roundup column with the following analysis: "The Ad Review staff, the single whitest enclave outside of Latvia, doesn't quite get it but suspects it is very funny . . . with big catchphrase potential."

Well, we were right and we were wrong. It is, indeed, funny, and it certainly found itself on the lips of every able-bodied male American above the age of 4. But it's certainly worth more than 3 stars, and it turns out the Ad Review staff is not the whitest enclave outside of Latvia.

This festival is the whitest enclave outside of Latvia. There are Klan meetings with more racial diversity (albeit inferior hors d'oeuvres). Yet, all over this town all week long, alabaster delegates of every nationality, language and culture were thrusting their tongues out of their mouths and exclaiming/retching, "Whassssupppppp?"

There was no Latvian delegate present, but two Finns performed it in stereo for us in the Hotel Martinez with no prompting and no more than 11 cocktails apiece. So, yeah, here's what's up: Anheuser-Busch and DDB Worldwide, Chicago, have done it again. The folks who brought you "Yes, I am!" and "I love you, man" have somehow managed to foment another cultural phenomenon. Credit not only filmmaker (and the campaign's star) Charles Stone III, but also DDB and A-B's marketing czar Bob Lachky, who has an uncanny knack for capturing lightning in a 12-ounce can.

Lord knows how they could see the inner beer ad within Stone's oddball promo film, but see it they did--just as all America saw it not as an inside-black-culture joke but a universal expression of eloquent male inarticulateness. What women can do with smiley, sympathetic head-nodding, men do with an ostensibly perfunctory greeting. These aren't mere words and gestures; they are bonds of understanding.

"Whassssupppppp?" doesn't mean, "Pray, have you any news you'd care to impart?" It means, "You are my friend, and if you are doing anything interesting--interesting being defined as watching football and swilling beer--I'm in favor of doing it together."

So, for starters, this advertising absolutely understands its target audience. Furthermore, in the roles of Everymen, Stone and his friends are wonderful--especially the director himself, who wears something close to a Kabuki scowl of blank sports-viewing concentration until the "Whassssupppppp?s" start to fly, whereupon he becomes animated and charismatic. Furthermore, it all takes place minus the obvious, and often vulgar, "Man Show" sort of jokes.

Furthermore, it is simply irresistible.

That's what turned the tide in the jury voting. There reportedly was some dissension among those who felt the campaign's roots as a short film disqualified it on originality grounds. Others may have been concerned with its striking similarity to a 3-year-old Brazilian campaign for Brahma beer, which also has football watchers on the phone--not gargling "Whassss-upppppp?," but hissing "Tssssssssssss" (the sound of a Brahma been popped open).

We ourselves don't think this was the best entry at the festival, nor even the best beer entry (Bronze Lion-winner Molson Canadian was our choice).

But popularity trumped all misgivings. If someone asks, "Can Anheuser-Busch triumph simply by getting people to mouth a catchy expression?" the answer is: Yes, it Cannes.

Copyright June 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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