In defense of 'Whassup?!'

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One of the greatest strengths of our industry is the depth and fervency of its opinions regarding its creative work. Unfortunately, this passion seems also to be our Achilles' heel. We often fail to agree on one subject that should have a common benchmark for evaluation -- building a brand.

Jeff Graham's well written essay on DDB Worldwide's "Whassup?!" campaign for Budweiser ("Whassup now with all those award wins?" AA, !Forum, Aug. 21), acknowledges the ubiquity of our tendency to use external phenomena as fundamental parts of the creative we develop. However, he questions the brand-building effectiveness of the "Whassup?!" campaign and takes offense at it being touted by awards judges as the best the industry has to offer. This lack of insight on Mr. Graham's part is the result of a gross oversight.


Brand building depends upon a product or service effectively confirming, at the point of interaction with the end user, the implied promise communicated in the advertising. Because the user's interaction with the brand can take place in a number of ways, building that brand, from the agency side at least, depends in part upon how relevantly the implied promise is communicated.

Evidently, the "Whassup?" ads squarely struck a chord. Among ethnic consumers in the African-American and Hispanic communities in particular, the phrase "whassup?" for years has been a staple. Depending upon the tone used, "whassup?" in our communities communicates everything from a modest greeting between strangers to a confrontational interrogative to a statement of a prevailing state of contentment -- no matter how exaggerated the delivery (the message communicated by the Budweiser ads).


Did the brand communicate its relevance in the "Whassup?!" campaign? Yes. Budweiser is positioned as a natural addition to the relaxed, laidback environments of each of the guys in the ad. Was the creative execution true to the message sent? Again, yes -- whether or not men like to admit we do sink deep into our armchairs to watch the game while looking supremely bored, or attempt to find humor in the similarities of our everyday phrases and other things around us. We sometimes act exactly as in the ads. What's the implied promise? Clearly it's that when you're in a similar instance of relaxation, or involved in social activities with your friends or significant other, Budweiser is the natural complement to the situation.


Will the implied promise be confirmed at the point of contact? That's the job of the product and therefore is the client's responsibility, not the agency's. Will it move product? Again, that depends upon the satisfaction with the client's product after the user has been motivated to try the product.

Has the agency done its job? Creatively, yes -- the tone, feel and mannerisms of the actors were as real as can be portrayed. Did it communicate a message and make an implied promise? Yes. Did it make the message relevant by touching a chord of understanding? Yes. Three out of three ain't bad!

That Mr. Graham is personally unaware of just how culturally, socially and creatively relevant these ads were to an influential, trendsetting part of the consumer audience -- who have traditionally been drawn to malt liquors, ales and other beer brands -- only shows how narrow his scope of view is. Maybe he is similarly unaware of the cultural relevance of the word "true," especially as used in the ads, and its clever use, ultimately, as a tagline for the ad.

Can an ad campaign contribute to building a brand and not be completely original to the agency? If it simultaneously appeals to one ethnic group, because of cultural relevance and humor, and has more general appeal because of gender characteristics, sure it can.

If a message has been communicated, creatively delivered and resonates with its target audience in such a memorable way due to its simplicity, I'd say these ads are an example of the best our industry has to offer. They display the ability to identify for us all, through a point of common understanding, the essence of the client's brand. That is what we're here for -- right?

Mr. Burford is CEO-executive creative director, Quantum Group, Jamaica, N.Y.

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