Bud Light's brilliant dude ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
Jan. 28 2008 7:51 AM

Dude!

How great are those new Bud Light ads?

The spot: A man sits on a couch watching TV. His roommate enters and sits down right next to him, practically knee-to-knee. The man shoots the roommate a look of disapproval. "Dude," he says. The roommate moves over a cushion. A series of similar vignettes ensue: The man asks for a hand with a bench press ("dude?"), discovers a forgotten jar of peanut butter ("dude!"), and confronts a colleague who taps his pencil incessantly ("dude …"). Lastly, he reproves a friend for ordering what appears to be a flute of prosecco instead of a Bud Light. In this scene—as in all the ad's scenes—the only word uttered is dude.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

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Remember Steve? You know—the "Dude, you're getting a Dell" guy? Back in the early oughts, his ads were something of a phenomenon. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to say that the ads had "made a celebrity" of Benjamin Curtis, the actor who played Steve. Sadly, Curtis's celebrity soon turned to notoriety, and not long after that, obscurity. But he'd made his mark. Advertisers had been put on notice. The word dude had resonance.

Fittingly, this next big step in dude-related advertising is the work of DDB/Chicago—the same outfit that brought us Steve. They've upped the ante this time around, however. Steve used the word dude as part of a catchphrase, uttered at the end of ads otherwise given over to touting the particulars of Dell PCs. The new Bud Light ads depict a day in the life of an unnamed man who communicates using the word dude and dude alone. Save for a single Bud Light and the flash of a logo, there's no mention of the product. Why, exactly, would this ad make me choose Bud Light over Miller Lite or the Silver Bullet?

Bob Lachky, Anheuser-Busch's chief creative officer, told me that the dude ad is in the same mold as Budweiser's successful "Wazzup" spots. Both campaigns, he said, pull a word or phrase from the popular vernacular and stamp it with the Bud brand.

I don't think the "Wazzup" analogy quite works. Budweiser had a much bigger presence in those ads, for one. Wazzup was a salutation used by a group of friends who were "watching the game, having a Bud." And while the ads didn't invent the phrase "what's up?" they did introduce a new way of saying it. For a time, an ecstatic wazzup was the default greeting at frat rushes and tailgates across the land. Each time you heard it, you couldn't help but think of the good people at Anheuser-Busch.

Even after watching the Bud Light ads over and over, I don't think of beer when I hear someone say "dude." The dude ads aren't so much branding the word as offering a field guide to its many shades of meaning. By my count, the ads isolate at least six distinct usages:

The admonitory dude: the dude deployed when your buddy won't stop humming "Umbrella" on a long car ride. As in, "Dude, enough."

The interrogative dude: useful for ascertaining whether you've dropped a call. "Dude? Are you still there?"

The deflated dude: the dude of bad news. "Dude. Tom Brady's wearing a boot."

The exclamatory dude: the dude of good news. "Dude! Tom Brady is no longer wearing a boot!"

The sotto voce dude: for classified briefings. "Dude: Here comes that tall drink of water from accounting."

The blissed-out dude: more accurately rendered as duhuhude. The dude issued upon rediscovering a long-lost Dead tape.

The ad nails each of these senses, some more than once. I particularly admire the scene in which our hero, playing a game of pick-up basketball, uses an exclamatorydude to call for the ball—Dude, pass me the rock!—and then an admonitorydude after his teammate takes the shot himself—Dude, stop hogging the ball.

Yet as clever as the dude conceit is, it's not what makes this ad distinctive. It's easy to imagine a version of this spot starring someone like our old friend Steve—a benign stoner whose brain is so fried that his vocabulary has been reduced to a single, if multipurpose, lexeme. That ad might elicit a chuckle, but I doubt it would register the 1.8 million views the original dude ad has garnered on YouTube since late October.

The dude conceit grabs your attention, but it's the dude himself who raises this ad to the level of brilliance—and makes you want to watch it again. (Given the subtlety of the sell, repeat views are a good thing for Anheuser-Busch.) Beer ads that don't star horses or locomotives tend to be populated by a few classic types—yuppies, boneheads, boneheaded yuppies. The hero of the dude ad is something different. He's not the slick-dressing denizen of some chic rehabbed loft space, nor is he the butt of standard beer ad pratfalls. He's the untucked renter of a tired apartment and the victim of more mundane indignities: His buddy keeps him waiting, some guy barges into the bathroom stall he's occupying, he gets cut in line at the movies. He refuses, however, to tolerate these affronts. Each transgressor is made aware that his actions are lacking in common courtesy. Dude.

His travails make him seem a bit dweeby, and his response to them can be a bit peevish. Do I want to be this guy? I don't. But he reminds me of guys that I know, and I recognize in his daily life experiences I've had myself as a member in good standing of the ad's target audience—twenty- and thirtysomething guys who watch sports. The play here isn't "Drink Bud Light because we can make you laugh," or "because it's what the guy who gets the girl drinks." It's "Drink Bud Light because we understand the world you live in."

Grade: A-. This is a much trickier feat to pull off than making me smirk at a bunch of guys slapping each other. But the execution here is pitch perfect.

The documentary-style camera work gives the spot a beer-ad verité vibe, and the piano score lends it unexpected subtlety. I don't think they give a Clio for excellence in costume design, but Edith Head has nothing on whoever did the wardrobe for this spot: The sweaters, the yellow basketball pinny, the Vuarnet sunglasses—they're all perfect. They conjure a singular character who at the same time feels like a dude you know, which in the end is the ad's real achievement.

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