Wassup guys are back - for Barack

Inquirer staff writer David Hiltbrand reports:

They're baa-ack -- the "Wassup" guys, who cannonballed into the public consciousness eight years ago shouting their trademark phrase over the phone to each other.

Only this time, instead of pitching beer, they've revived their famous greeting in service to Barack Obama.

In the two-minute short, "Wassup 2008," the crew can barely summon up the enthusiasm to say "wassup!"

They're all in pain from the terrible mess this country is in. The only thing that can coax a half-hearted smile from any of them is the sight of a TV ad for Obama.

The spot has become a viral sensation, generating more than 2.6 million hits on YouTube since it was uploaded on Friday. (See it at below, or click http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qq8Uc5BFogE.)

Charles Stone III directed and appears in the video as well as the original commercials. He's the one who delivers the new tagline: "Change, that's wassup. Change."

"It's trippy," says Stone. "It's gotten over 7,000 responses. You get a couple of people writing 'Yeah! Obama rocks!' Then you get people delivering major discourses on the Republican ideology versus the Democratic ideology."

The video piggybacks on the Budweiser commercial that swept the nation after airing during the Super Bowl in 2000.

"When advertising transcends the format and becomes an everyday slogan, that's the Holy Grail for an advertising campaign," says David Allan, assistant professor of marketing at St. Joseph's University. "There was a time when people even in the Midwest were saying it to each other."

By the way, there is no official way to spell "wassup," according to Stone, a Wynnefield native and the son of former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Chuck Stone.

"There's a lot of ways to do it," he says on the phone from Los Angeles, where he now lives. "Most people know it as 'Whassup!' I've seen it as 'wassup' or 'wasssup.' Personally I think of it as 'Whassaah!' "

Stone should know. He developed the bit for a film short, "True," in 1998.

"True" was spotted by a Chicago ad executive who brought it to the beermaker. The company offered Stone, an emerging filmmaker whose credits now include Drumline and Mr. 3000, $37,000 to license the concept for five years. He accepted on the condition that he direct the commercial.

"When I was putting it together, I knew it could slip into urban jive and I didn't want that to happen," says Stone. "Even then no one knew what it would do: Four young black men screaming 'wassup' into the phone."

It featured local guys, most of whom are back for the subtly polemical sequel: Scott Brook and Fred Thomas from West Philadelphia, and Paul Willams from West Oak Lane. Even the new addition in the Obama video, Maurice Smith, is from Philly.

After the commercial blew up, Stone was suprised that Budweiser didn't try to renegotiate. "You would have figured they would try to buy me out because of the spot's huge success," he says. " 'We need to own this thing.' " The agreement expired in 2005.

"It's very unusual for an advertiser not to keep the rights to creative," says Allan. "I'm very suprised [Stone] was able to hold onto the concept and use it again."

At this point, Stone is feeling pretty happy with the deal he struck.

"A lot of my friends are like, 'Dude, you got gypped. $37,000 compared to to the amount of money Budweiser has reaped off it?,' " he says. "Yeah, that's true, but here's the hook: I am reaping the benefits of the benefits they reaped off my short film.

"I was able to create a short film, a poignant piece of work that will motivate people to embrace the change Barack Obama represents. That's worth a million dollars to me."

Wassup, indeed.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at dhiltbrand@ phillynews.com or 215-854-4552. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/daveondemand.