Thursday, March 23, 2000

Whassup? Bud's buzzword borrows from male ritual

The Washington Post

        And so a great cry was heard across the land, echoing from the barrooms to the ballfields to the locker rooms, or wherever men are being manly: “Whassup?”

        Whassup? In the blink of a Budweiser commercial, it has become a classic male-bonding moment, a verbal high-five. It's part question, part macho affinity statement.

        Like “Where's the beef?” or “I love you, man!” it has leapt from the lips of TV characters into the national consciousness, male division. It's pronounced low and throaty, heavy on the testosterone and altogether slow and silly: “Whasssuuup?”

        It's now a common guy-greeting. Callers to sports-talk radio programs are constantly hitting the hosts with it. NBA players and sports announcers have been imitating it on the air and on the court.

        There are knockoffs and tributes aplenty. Saturday Night Live recently featured Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel and Bernard Shaw characters exchanging the greeting; the hot e-mail of the moment uses the soundtrack of the original Bud ad but syncs it, ingeniously, with cartoons of Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman and Aquaman.

        Anheuser-Busch Inc., Bud's parent company, launched the whassup phenomenon in late December with a series of commercials starring four young African-Americans. The friends break up their otherwise ordinary routines by greeting each other with elaborately comic turns on the phrase, a variation of the salutation “What's up?”

        On one level, the four spots say much about male friendship (and a little about drinking beer). They provide a glimpse into a private world of four men at leisure. The joy each man expresses in greeting and being greeted by his longtime friends is infectious, universal and, it seems, genuine.

        And, in fact, the four guys are longtime friends. In 1997, director Charles Stone III recruited three of his pals from Philadelphia to star in a short film. The two-minute piece, called “True,” captured the whole whassup bit. When Bud's ad agency, DDB of Chicago, saw Mr. Stone's video resume, they asked him to reshoot his short as a 60-second Bud commercial.

        Mr. Stone auditioned about 80 multi-ethnic actors, but none, he says, captured the same spirit, so he persuaded the suits to go with his friends.

        That's Mr. Stone himself (he's the bearded fellow) who utters the laconic “watching the game, drinking a Bud” line, along with Afro-haired Paul Williams, Scott (“Dukie”) Brooks and Fred Thomas (the guy in the jersey who kick-starts all the whassuping).

        “That's really how we talk to each other,” says Mr. Stone. “People say it seems real to them. It is real.”

        On another level, “whassup” follows the long line of black slang that has migrated from the street to the mainstream. The lexicon has been enriched by countless similar words and phrases, from “cool” and “diss” to “you go, girl” and “24/7.”

        The phrase itself springs from its own tradition of African-American ceremonial greetings. It's the head nod, the grip, the “brotherman” hug with a tightfisted pound for heightened punctuation.

        “There is something quite ritualized about it and very specific to black people, this whole issue of "what's up,' the way that that says informality, unity, we are a people,” says Elijah Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor and author of Code of the Street, a book on urban culture.

        The Bud commercials seem to have accurately summarized something about the way men communicate with one another. It's almost a secret language, a nonverbal code that boys carry into adulthood. Women don't really understand, as Mr. Stone puts it, “that guys actually have deep conversations through grunts and moans.”

        “The beauty of it is that it's a very simple way for guys to connect,” says Don Pogany, DDB's chief creative director for Budweiser.



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