I had the great good luck to have a beer campaign that featured a catchphrase that was incredibly popular. Popular beyond my wildest dreams in fact. And my wildest dreams were pretty wild.
Looking back, I was uniquely positioned to create a beer campaign with a catchphrase. I had grown up watching the infectiously populist UK beer campaigns of the 1980s (“i bet he drinks carling black label!”, “Gertcha!”) which were brilliantly executed and great fun to watch. Those were the ads that made me want to be in advertising.
So when i finally got the chance to work on a beer (Bud Light) in the mid 90s I was ready. Bud Light had a history of creating catchphrases that seeped into the popular culture. And when I first worked on it there was a very successful campaign that featured a catchphrase.
The catchphrase was “I LOVE YOU MAN!”. This was the commercial from whence it came.
When i told people that i wrote TV commercials for Bud Light, they would invariably ask if i did THAT commercial. And i would sigh and lugubriously reply that, no, i didn’t do THAT one. Consequently i had a lot of time to analyze why “I love you man!” was successful. And the biggest reason i could see was that it gave drunken college guys license to tell their male friends that they loved them, man. but in a way that was acceptably heterosexual and humorous.
In other words, it served a function. It was useful in everyday life. it was prefab comedy. say it in a bar and you would get a laugh. it was social currency.
when i came across the film that became the basis for the Wassup! campaign I noticed that everyone who I showed the film to couldn’t help but adopt the phrase as their greeting to me. this excited me greatly. I knew we had something that had the potential to be huge. for a couple of reasons: what’s up? is American for hello. imagine if your beer catchphrase had the opportunity to be said by everyone many times per day! another thing about it that i liked was the fact that the cast of the film happened to African-American. and our audience happened to be the generation of Americans that had swallowed hip-hop culture whole. they were color blind. and so they had no problem adopting the phrase as their own. i’m not sure the campaign would have been nearly as successful ten years previously.
But ultimately the reason the phrase caught on to the extent it did, i think, was that saying it made you feel a little better than not saying it. A little bit of nervous energy left your body when you said it. I think the sayings of Borat had a similarly cathartic quality and so were irresistible for a similar reason.
I don’t think you can consciously create popular catchphrases. But you can develop an ear for them. And study the classics. Then you’ll know it when you hear it. You won’t be able to stop saying it. That’s the test.