Editor’s Note: This article was first published on January 31, 2019.
Vinny Warren knew he’d struck gold in 1999 when a friend showed him a “super-grainy and degraded” VHS video of guys screaming “WHAAASSSSUP!?” at each other over the phone. At 32, the Irish-born creative director at Chicago-based ad agency DDB was still young enough “to be in touch with that youthful party spirit,” he says, and he thought the short was brilliant — even though it had “no discernible joke.” There was something “irresistible” about it, he tells MEL more than 19 years later. “It was really funny. To me, anyway.”
And then Warren had an idea: What if the guys were holding Budweisers?
The rest is history. The ad, titled “Whassup?,” debuted on Monday Night Football in December 1999 and aired during Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000. It won countless advertising awards, including a Cannes Grand Prix, and entered the pantheon of iconic American ads — becoming arguably one of the most well known Super Bowl commercials in history.
But what of its humble beginnings? How did an ad go viral before going viral was even a thing?
It’s a myth, Warren says, that he discovered the film at a short film festival. But what most people don’t know is that it was a short film to begin with. The original, titled TRUE, was written and directed by Charles Stone III. It was never intended to be an early viral advertising sensation. Instead, it was Stone’s “calling card,” Warren says, to “prove to Hollywood he could tell a story.”
In 1999, Charles Stone III was an up-and-coming director, trying to make his name in the business. “He’d mostly shot rap/music videos until then, which were a little light on story,” Warren tells MEL. “So he made a film on the cheap that used his friends doing what they’d done: bullshitting on the phone about nothing.”
Stone and his friends were from Philadelphia, Warren explains, but they shot the entire film in an apartment in New York City.
“The film was basically an editorial joke,” Warren says. “Nothing overtly funny actually happens in the film, but the way their shouts of ‘Whassup!’ built to an irresistible crescendo was very funny.” Stone entered TRUE into “all the short-film festivals,” and it was well received, Warren says. (Stone didn’t return our requests for comment.)
Industry insiders began to pass around a VHS of the film, and eventually, “an ad agency producer pal showed me a VHS copy of a copy of the film,” Warren says. “It was super-grainy and degraded.”
But the magic was there. “This was the same tape we played to the Budweiser clients,” Warren says.
“My immediate thought was that it was hilarious and fresh,” Warren adds. His advertising instincts kicked in: “Because I worked on the Budweiser brand, my creative antenna was always on the alert for ideas that could work for the brand,” he says. And once he noticed the guys in the film were watching an NFL game, “it was easy for me to see Buds in their hands.”
Warren got more excited for the film’s potential when he saw the effect it had on anyone who watched it. “I simply couldn’t stop showing it to other (white) advertising people, and they all had the same reaction: Every time we would meet, we would shout ‘Whassup!’ at each other and laugh. We couldn’t not do it. It was just irresistible on some level. I kind of knew that if we did it right, everyone in America would be shouting ‘Whassup!’ I had tested that out in a microcosm on my pals and co-workers. And nobody was immune.”
Warren decided he needed to pitch this to the Anheuser-Busch executives, who happened to be in town for one night in October 1999.
The pitch for “Whassup?” — a commercial that would end up in CLIO Awards Hall of Fame — happened in a hotel bar.
“August Busch IV was in Chicago for a night,” Warren explains. It was October 1999, and Warren and the DDB team were throwing around ideas for Super Bowl 2000 ideas.
“We showed him the video of the TRUE film, and he liked it,” Warren says. But to Busch, it was “just another promising idea fighting for attention and funding.” Warren explains that Budweiser and Bud Light, by this point, had an established history of putting together very popular Super Bowl ads. “They had a standing order of five minutes of airtime in the game,” he says. “That’s potentially 10 30-second ads for all their brands. Every year. So they overproduced ideas for the Super Bowl.”
In other words, Busch enjoyed the grainy, degraded VHS, but it didn’t stand out from the rest of the ideas pitched. It did have one special thing going for it, though: “Luckily for us, our idea was relatively cheap to shoot compared to some of the more cinematically epic ideas,” Warren says.
Anheuser-Busch gave DDB the go-ahead.
Warren felt confident it would resonate. “I had already delivered a couple of biggish-hit ads for them, I knew the brands and I knew the Anheuser-Busch corporate culture. It felt right for Budweiser because of the situation: friends watching sports on TV and bullshitting. And it was just cathartic and fun to shout ‘Whassup!’ to your pals when you’d had a few beers.”
But there was one problem. “Funny side note: We had already sold the idea to the client before we contacted Charles to tell him,” Warren admits. “Bear in mind, this was late 1999. Not everything was online yet. I actually had to track Charles down and tell him the news and persuade him that we wouldn’t fuck it up.”
Filming the Redux
Just as the original film TRUE was shot in New York City, so too was the Budweiser ad — they even used the same cast (with the exception of Dookie), and contracted Stone to direct. “We just recreated it with more money and better equipment,” Warren says.
But also, they shot it with “a different intent.” If the purpose of the original was to portray the way guys used to chat on the phone about nothing, what was the new intent? To sell beer, of course. “I added the response, ‘Watching the game, havin’ a Bud,’ to our adaptation of the film,” Warren says. “Which felt about right. Budweiser has a unique place in the culture, much like Guinness does in Ireland. Bud equals beer here.”
The actual filming of the ad, Warren says, was easy: “It was very simple to recreate because it was so simply shot… [it] was a series of locked-off shots of people shouting ‘Whassup!’ at each other over the phone, it was very simple to recreate because it was so simply shot, and that’s why it was so easy to parody too.”
The Super Bowl
The film was recreated to perfection with the addition to a few subtle nods to Budweiser. Now, Warren and his team waited to see how it tested. “The way the Super Bowl worked for us was that we would produce 30 to 40 ads for all the Anheuser-Busch brands before the game,” he says. “And the client would test the fully produced and edited TV ads for ‘likability,’ i.e., which was the funniest, and select the the highest-scoring ads to air in the game.”
Three months after the original pitch, Warren says the top 10 “most broadly appealing and funny ideas” would be picked to air during the Super Bowl. “So getting your ad in that set was crucial,” he explains. “And because A-B always had the very first commercial spot within the game (the so-called ‘1A’ spot), the spot that tested the best automatically aired during that coveted 1A slot.”
To his relief, “Whassup?” was one of the 10 picked, but didn’t get the 1A slot. Though he eventually landed one there, this time he had to wait to see at what point in the game “Whassup?” would air.
This part is equally nerve-racking, Warren explains, “because, let’s say, the game is a one-sided slaughter, and everyone knows it by halftime. [This means] the interest in the game (and your ad) can suffer. It just oozes away. You can feel it when you’re watching it. Or the halftime show sucks, or both. The advertising real estate in the second half can lose value in terms of viewers who are excitedly watching their screens. The opposite can also be true: A nail-biting finish can add value to commercials that air in the fourth quarter. You never know.”
The first half went by, and “Whassup?” still hadn’t played.
Luckily, the 2000 Super Bowl was what’s now considered one of the greatest Super Bowls ever. The St. Louis Rams led the Tennessee Titans by nine going into halftime. After a second-half rally by the Titans, the game concluded on a last-minute goal-line tackle, which cemented it into the NFL’s Greatest Games series as “The Longest Yard” and earned the Rams their first Super Bowl win. The halftime show (Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Toni Braxton) was a hit.
And then, finally, “Whassup?” played, right after halftime.
“After the halftime show, the energy was really good,” Warren says, “and it turned out my Bud ad was just the right thing in that environment.”
Viral Before Viral Was a Thing
The stars aligned for “Whassup?” to be a hit commercial during the Super Bowl, but Warren says he had no idea what would happen next.
“We weren’t completely surprised when it was a hit,” he tells MEL. “It was more a feeling of relief. That was the game we were playing — we were going to be on the Super Bowl, and the Anheuser-Busch client usually won the “best ad of the big game” poll in USA Today, which was important to them.”
Warren says the goal of the ad was to “get American beer drinkers shouting Whassup? at each other,” but what surprised him was “all the online action we got.”
“It was a truly globally viral phenomenon. We hit at the right time — everyone had email by then, [and] ‘Whassup?’ traveled the world via email, which was new at the time.”
The creative director recalls heading back to his hometown of Galway, Ireland, in March 2000, about a month after the Super Bowl. “The first night I was back home — at midnight — all the young drinkers came staggering out of the pubs into the town square, shouting Whassuuuuuup! at each other. I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It was simultaneously a great buzz and a bit of a chill. I hadn’t envisioned the internet viral effect… the commercial had clearly ‘aired’ in Ireland via the internet. Everybody already knew it and loved it without paying a penny to put it on TV.
The ad went on to earn countless advertising awards, beyond the industry’s top achievements — the Cannes Grand Prix, a CLIO and two Emmy nominations.
With “endless internet parodies of the ad and every TV show referencing the campaign” came endless free publicity, and the ad took on a life of its own, Warren says. “It’s hard to communicate how popular this advertising campaign was. It hit like a comet. … My wildest dreams [were] exceeded, and my dreams were pretty wild. … Not many people get to see what I saw.”
As for why “Whassup?” struck such a chord, Warren has two theories:
“At the time we were talking to the generation of young (white) drinkers that had swallowed hip-hop culture whole. Eminem had just hit. African-American culture was loved by everyone. White people in the Midwest were trying to sound like they were from Compton. So this was welcomed. And a commercial for Budweiser starring black guys was bound to cause a stir, but our timing was good. The younger generation was on our side.
“The other thing that struck me about the phrase was that it is physically pleasing to shout the phrase Whasssssuuuuuup!!! It was cathartic to say it. A little bit of nervous energy leaves your body when you shout it. Much like when you say Borat’s ‘Niiiiice!’ catchphrase. Both are exclamatory and require energy to say. You have to commit.”
For Warren, the ad helped launch his career — he eventually founded and now runs his own agency in Chicago, The Escape Pod — but he says he’s grown numb to “Whassup?” still echoing throughout pop culture.
“I have spent almost 20 years having echoes of this idea circulate endlessly around the culture and the internet. I am numb to them now. Someone just told me they play the whole ad in the new Christian Bale Vice movie. That should be exciting, and it’s not even remotely exciting to me. That’s the bit that’s weird.”