Tag Archives: catchphrases

Anatomy of a popular catchphrase

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.


The enduring appeal of sticking out one’s tongue and shouting “Wassup!”

It’s back.  I guess enough time has passed for the culture to have gotten over its Wassup! overdose in 2000.

The latest viral video charts show Wassup2008 at number one and the original Budweiser Wassup ad climbing up the charts at number 11.  Oh dear!

I can remember emerging slightly shell-shocked from the editing suite after we filmed the first Wassup! spots.  I’d listened to the phrase constantly for a week and was understandably heartily sick of hearing it.  So when people would come up to me and tell me, months later, how sick they were of hearing the phrase, i would nod politely and, in my head, go “Tell me about it pal!”.  I was arguably the first Wassup! burnout.

Like anything that is conspicuously successful, the whole Wassup! pop cultural phenomenon was written about and analyzed endlessly by the media at the time.  I recall being surprised about how blase i had become about being interviewed about the same thing over and over and over.  Lots of writers pointed out how the spots were great representations of male bonding etc…etc.

But for me the thing that made the whole thing work was much more basic.  And it was this.  When you screamed Wassuuuuuuup! a little bit of nervous energy left your upper body.  And you actually felt slightly better for saying it.  In much the same way that saying “IS NICE!!!” Borat-style is slightly cathartic.  It’s the same principle, physiologically speaking.

Go on, try saying both catchphrases.  You’ll feel better!