Colombians are abuzz over the biggest soccer broadcast of the year. “El Fútbol Grande” is their equivalent of the Super Bowl, and on April 1 the Cartagena Conquistadores will battle the Bogotá Bravos for the national title.
While fans in the competing cities are focused on the match itself, many viewers will tune in solely for the commercials, eager to see what the laidback “Qué Pasa?” dudes will do next. Their debut at the 2001 El Fútbol Grande made marijuana-marketing history.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, marijuana has been legal in Colombia since 1955. For much of that time, the Qué Pasa? (“What’s Up?”) Marijuana Company has languished in the lower ranks of national distributors, its share of the domestic market rarely rising above 3 percent.
Enter ad genius Diego Diaz. The hip, Harvard-educated devotee of American comedy hired a pair of out-of-work actor pals and penned a script that was equal parts Abbott and Costello and Cheech and Chong.
The commercial opens with a shot of Rico lounging on the sofa when the phone rings. “Hola,” he says.
“Qué pasa?” asks the voice on the other end, Rico’s amigo Chico.
“Watching the match, smokin’ a bud,” Rico replies. (The word “bud” is bilingual slang for “marijuana cigarette.”)
“What brand are you smoking?” Chico asks.
“Qué Pasa?” Rico says.
“Dude, you can’t answer a question with another question. What are you smoking?”
“Whatever you say, dude.”
“No, dude. I’m smoking Qué Pasa? marijuana. It’s quality weed.”
“Qué Pasa?” asks Chico incredulously, having never heard of the brand.
“Watching the match, smokin’ a bud,” Rico slyly replies.
We cut to Chico, who gives his phone receiver an exasperated stare and hangs up. We then cut to Rico, who smiles, shakes his head and reaches for his bud.
The Qué Pasa? logo lights up the screen as a voiceover announcer ends the ad with this elongated cry: “Qué pa-sahhhhhh?”
The catch-phrase caught fire, and Qué Pasa?’s market share went up -- but not in smoke. It now sells an astounding 26 percent of the marijuana smoked and baked in Colombia.
Diaz isn’t saying what Rico and Chico will do for an encore at the 2002 El Fútbol Grande. But one thing is certain: This time around they’ll have to share the commercial spotlight -- with a sponsor who’s not aiming for laughs.
The Partnership for a Tobacco-Free Colombia and the government’s Office of Drug Suppression and Promotion (ODSP) have purchased two 30-second slots for their latest joint public service announcement. Previewed for this reporter by ODSP director José Cañusi, it presents shockingly blunt statements by three Colombian nicotine fiends:
• A college student says, “I helped a murderer buy a ski lodge in Aspen.”
• A 30-something businesswoman says, “I helped a murderer buy a yacht for his son and a Kentucky racehorse for his daughter.”
• A middle-aged policeman says, “I helped a murderer donate big bucks to the candidate who won the U.S. presidency.”
Then, in blood-red letters against a black background, this message scrolls across the screen: “Colombia has one-sixth the population of the United States, yet every year more Colombians die from American cigarettes than Americans die from Colombian cocaine and heroin. If you smoke, not only are you killing yourself, you’re enriching the murderous gringos of Big Tobacco and the politicians they own.”
Cañusi is the only cabinet officer in the lame-duck Pastrana administration with high public approval. “It’s because I focus on the drugs doing the most damage here in Colombia,” he said. “Heroin is deadly, but Colombians are either too smart or too poor to try it. I wish I could say the same for nicotine.”
Americans who tune in El Fútbol Grande will be surprised to see a staple of U.S. sports broadcasts -- the beer commercial -- strangely absent.
Alcohol is legal in Colombia, but ads for the psychoactive depressant have been banned since 1998. Cañusi explains:
“In a nation of 44 million, we have two million alcohol addicts and one million problem drinkers. Every day our police officers risk their lives responding to domestic disputes fueled by alcohol. Whenever a gringo asks me why we ban booze ads, I reply, ‘Why does the U.S. allow them?’”
Cañusi is not troubled by the apparent contradiction of promoting consumption of one of Colombia’s legal drugs (marijuana) while working to reduce consumption of two others (nicotine and alcohol).
“We don’t want Colombians abusing any drugs,” he said. “We have no problem with moderate use of marijuana and alcohol, but if you are going to abuse either, make it marijuana. I despise all drug addicts because they lack the willpower to resist their urges; still, we all know that potheads typically do far less damage to themselves and others than boozers.”
As El Fútbol Grande approaches, Cañusi admits to some nervousness -- about the game, not the ads. “I owe my bookie big time. If the Bravos don’t win, I’m dead!”
Dennis Hans would like to remind readers that marijuana is NOT legal in Colombia. Hans is a freelance writer and humorist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post
(Canada) and online at TomPaine.com, Slate and The Black World Today (tbwt.com), among other outlets. He has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, and can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu