It's not a TV commercial. It's not an advertisement. It's not a spot. It's a "short movie." Or at least, that's what one very annoyed executive at Goodby Silverstein & Partners -- Budweiser's lead agency -- persists in calling "Wazzzup," the awfully amusing 60-second Budweiser thing that ran on prime-time network television in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl Sunday.
Goodby, it turns out, had nothing to do with "Wazzzup." Bud's latest campaign -- including a 30-second variation on "Wazzzup" shown during the Super Bowl -- is the work of a complete outsider: Brooklyn director Charles Stone III, until now best known for his music videos for the Roots and A Tribe Called Quest. Though one of Bud's other agencies, DDB Needham, helped broker the deal with Stone, he basically got to produce the commercial the way he wanted -- even hiring his own cast and a handpicked New York crew to film it. "I didn't know it was running," says my unhappy Deep Throat at Goodby, "until I started getting calls asking about it."
Unfortunately for Goodby, "Wazzzup" happens to be one very popular ad. It's begun to enter the vernacular -- I've already heard young suits in a midtown bar quoting lines from it -- and at press time, "Wazzzup" held the No. 1 spot on AdCritic.com, a sort of indie fan site for TV ads.
"Wazzzup" starts with a shot of a bored-looking black guy (Stone himself) lounging on a couch, watching a football game, holding a bottle of Budweiser. The phone rings. Quick cut to the guy who's calling -- also lounging on a couch -- saying, "Hey, wazzzup?"
"Nothing, B," says Stone. "Just watching the game, having a Bud. Wazzzup witchu?"
His buddy answers, "Nothing. Watching the game, having a Bud."
Stone responds, "True, true."
Quick wide establishing shot of his loft apartment. A roommate entering the kitchen area in the distance calls out, "Wazzzup?!"
Stone yells back, "Wazzzup?" and adds, "Yo, pick up the phone!" And so it goes, on and on, until the spot peaks in a chorus of almost hysterical, screeching, gleeful cries of "Wazzzuuuuppp?!" and fades out to a still frame of the Budweiser logo and the tag line true.
It's an absolutely moronic and completely winning spot. Never mind the subtext that this spot celebrates brotherhood and appropriates a hip-hop term of approval ("true") for a mainstream prime-time audience. What makes the spot universally appealing is the way it captures, with its pitch-perfect dialogue, the way an idiotic catch phrase, repeated one (or ten) too many times, can take on inexplicably high-comic meaning among a group of friends. And it positions Bud as a brand that's enduringly unpretentious, that fits right into the daily rhythms of guydom. These guys don't need Corona. They don't even need Rolling Rock. All they want is a Bud.
"Like Hollywood studios, big agencies are hobbled by infrastructure -- in-house art directors and copywriters and creative teams and millions of dollars invested in long-running campaigns."
"Short movie"? Well, yeah, you can call it that if you're an ad executive rankled by an indie maverick's creeping onto your turf. And in fact this 60-second spot had a previous life as Stone's two-year-old two-minute short film "True," which was duped from VCR to VCR and passed all around Hollywood. It uses almost exactly the same cast of real-life buddies, the same script, and the same quick-cut rhythm as the Bud spot. "I shot 'True' on Hi-8 video at a friend's house in Harlem," says Stone. "I must have spent under $2,000."
While "Wazzzup" looks artful, it also happens to walk and talk like an ad. By invoking the classic beer-drinking moment -- you're in the company of good friends, the game's on TV -- it makes you crave a Bud way more than Goodby's Budweiser frog and lizard spots (which, by the way, are still running).
Which is, of course, a problem for Goodby.
Add AdCritic.com to the list of problems for Goodby -- and for every major agency, come to think of it. On the surface, of course, what could be better for agencies than a site that celebrates advertising? AdCritic.com is, in its own very modest way, something like the Super Bowl -- a forum for intense public focus on the commercial as pop-cultural art form. But consider, for a moment, the power AdCritic.com gives to consumers to demonstrate their receptivity -- or lack thereof -- to advertising, and it's not too hard to imagine how something like AdCritic writ large could really muck things up for the traditional brand-agency relationship.
Peter Beckman, a computer programmer in Virginia, founded AdCritic.com out of his home right after the last Super Bowl because of his peculiar layperson's passion for really good advertising. He still runs the site as an after-work hobby and with "practically no budget," but already he draws an audience of roughly 5,000 unique visitors a day (watching nothing but commercials!). Beckman mostly records spots right off his TV and digitizes them himself (he planned to stay up late Super Bowl Sunday doing just that), but if you need any indication that agencies are more anxious than ever about how their work will be received, look no further than Portland-based Wieden & Kennedy, which just worked with Beckman on advance testing of a new Nike spot. A few weeks ago, AdCritic.com hosted the commercial's world premiere: A group of 800 people who registered to be in an AdCritic.com focus group were able to view the Nike spot at a secret online address three days before the ad made its debut on national TV. "They were looking for what people are saying about the spot," says Beckman, "and what demographic they're in."
Agencies test ads all the time, of course, but instantaneous Net-based feedback has the potential to screw up an agency's best-laid creative plans -- instantly. This already happens with online advertising: Banner ads are gauged in real time with "click-through" rates; they don't work, they're gone. In the converged broadband near-future, the entire Net-TV viewing audience (think WebTV, TiVo, ReplayTV, AOL Time Warner) becomes one big focus group: Spots will be judged by whether or not users choose to watch or interact with them. Your agency's frog and lizard spots seem played out? They become instant road kill.
Now add one last ingredient to the combustible Net-TV advertising convergence: the rise of desktop digital video production -- a revolution that Stone is at the heart of.
Last year, faced with the advent of digital video, big-budget Hollywood entered into a prolonged bout of soul-searching. It's the Blair Witch syndrome. The big ad agencies have no choice but to follow suit, thanks to the "Wazzzup" effect (even though the Budweiser spot, unlike its precursor, "True," was shot on film). Broadband Net will breed not only the next generation of Scorseses and Lees but the next generation of TV-commercial directors -- who, like Charles Stone, have the potential to capture the popular imagination with quickly, stealthily produced advertising.
Stone's "Wazzzup" is a paradigm shift: It demonstrates how major brands can develop and test entirely new approaches on the fly. Of course, just as Warner Bros. or Fox theoretically could have produced The Blair Witch Project, so could major agencies like Goodby have created something like "Wazzzup." But like Hollywood studios, the big agencies are hobbled by infrastructure -- in-house art directors and copywriters and creative teams and millions of dollars invested in long-running campaigns. Such infrastructure is difficult to escape at a moment's notice.
Is there any hope, then, for agencies as the best, most proactive brand managers get more interested in quick-and-dirty, dynamically produced creative work? Well, sure. Consider what Miami agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky just did for its PlanetOutdoors.com account: It hired Haxan (Blair Witch Project) Films. There's always hope for creative types who are willing to absorb and co-opt new talent and new media. But watch for the big agencies that don't know wazzzup to begin their fade to black.