'Whassup' with that, Disney? Station plays a Bud-like song

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In an editorial written nearly a decade ago, Advertising Age declared "Old Joe must go." While we always vigorously defend the right to advertise legal products, we couldn't defend the continued use of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s cartoon spokescharacter. Joe Camel's appeal to children was too dangerous.

The tobacco company, of course, denied its ads targeted children. But in 1997, facing intense government scrutiny, Reynolds put Joe out to pasture.

Anheuser-Busch has also confronted intermittent criticism for Budweiser commercials populated by cute dogs, talking ants, bantering lizards and brand-loyal frogs because of their potential appeal to under-age drinkers. I've never shared that view; A-B on the whole seems rather responsible with its marketing. That said, the brewer's wildly popular "Whassup" campaign is now, apparently through no fault of A-B's, in a potentially sticky situation.

"Mass-media advertising explodes out of a shotgun and sprays everyone in its path, kids included," we wrote in the original Old Joe editorial. Given the pop-culture pervasiveness of "Whassup," it would be na‹ve to believe the phenomenon would bypass schoolyards. Yet, at least in the case of my three children (ages 9, 6 and 4), it had-they were blissfully unaware of the phrase.

That is, they were unaware of the phrase until Disney introduced it to them.

Yes, the most influential name in wholesome family entertainment exposed my kids (and many more) to the tagline for a beer ad. "Hey, Mickey, this Bud's for you."

I was in a car with my kids the first time I heard the song on Radio Dis-ney. With apologies to the mouse, I couldn't believe my ears. Here was a song consisting almost entirely of what sound like samples from actual "Whas-sup" commercials set to the beat of MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This."

Not surprisingly, my kids immediately began to yell "Whassup" to each other. I was particularly proud of how well the 4-year-old imitated the tagline.

To be sure I heard what I thought I heard on the station I thought I heard it on, I logged on to an area of Radio Disney's Web site devoted to popular tunes. At No. 12 was a song spelled as "Wassuup" by a group called Da Muttz. I'm assuming (based in part on the altered spelling) Budweiser has no official connection to the song, although calls to the company to clarify the situation didn't.

Coincidentally, my kids a few days later caught a "Whassup" commercial featuring an alien dressed in a dog costume. "That's from the song we heard," my daughter said. Then she asked, "What does that have to do with Budweiser?"

A good question, another column.

It's easy to see the alien dog spot's appeal to kids, but difficult to block their exposure to it. My problem is not with the message, but the medium. As far as I know, A-B's media plan doesn't include, say, Nickelodeon-or Radio Disney for that matter. And those kids' outlets wouldn't accept beer ads anyway. Yet Disney provides free airtime to a song that at least indirectly promotes a brand of beer on a station devoted to kids.

That's idiotic. Also stupid. Also reckless.

In an e-mail response to my queries, Robin Jones, senior director-operations at Radio Dis-ney, said the station "wants to emphasize that the lyrics are original and are not related to the Budweiser ad." The note also said Radio Disney "has not received any complaints from parents, teachers or kids." That's not true; I complained separately to the station as a parent.

"Radio Disney plays Da Muttz' `Wassuup' based on the popularity of the phrase within our target demo's culture," the e-mail noted.

Brand awareness, of course, doesn't necessarily translate into brand preference or product use. But it's blatantly inappropriate to expose kids to a song inspired by alcoholic-beverage advertising. What's next for Radio Disney, George Thorogood and the Destroyers' "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer"?

My kids won't find out. We're no longer tuning in to that station.

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