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Focal Plane: Whazzup addiction

This is the sixth instalment of the GoobNet Focal Plane, an occasional series wherein we highlight an unimportant social problem, trying to make you care about it. Previous edition: Image Consciality.

When Budweiser's "Whazzup" adverts first appeared on Aaron Anderson's television set, he considered it Earth-shattering. "I just couldn't get over how incredibly fun it was," he says. "Here are these everyday guys who might have some serious job, or not, or whatever, and they're hanging out their tongues and saying Whazzuuuuup almost continuously for thirty seconds. It was a new experience."

For Anderson and many others like him, SUN 30 JAN 2000 was a momentous day in the history of Earth. That was the day that the first "Whazzup" advert was broadcast, during ABC's coverage of Super Bowl XXXIV. Anderson's favourite American football team, the Tennessee Titans, would lose that game, but he didn't mind. His life had a new purpose.

"Whazzup" may have changed Anderson's life, but not, it seems, for the better. In OCT 2000, he was fired from his accounting position at Upton-Webber, Inc. He then started his own accounting firm, which is currently facing immense losses. By his own estimation, Anderson's Chicago, IL based company will not break even for two more years, at least. His savings are drying, and although he has a good credit rating, he will probably have trouble securing a loan over that period unless the economy's recovery accelerates.

Road to recovery

"I first realised I had a problem when my lab TA pulled me aside and told me that if I kept saying Whazzup to everyone as they walked past, he would grab my reagent and pour it over my head. I disregarded him at first, but when I thought about it later, it hit me. I just couldn't keep on like that. Then a few days later, I was walking along and I saw Kevin go past, and I turned around and said 'Whazzuuuup' as he walked by. And I lost my footing and fell into the pond. That's when I decided to come here."

"Amber" is one of nine people at this meeting of Whazzup Guys Anonymous. "Sandra" founded the group just over a year ago, when her addiction nearly took her life. "The same thing happened to me," she says to Amber. "Only in my case, a pipe that a workman was carrying hit me right in the back. The doctors said that if it had hit me just a little bit higher up, it would have paralysed me. So you should be happy. You recognised that you had a problem when your pride was the only thing hurt."

The home of the Whazzup Guys is Philadelphia, PA. It also happens to be the home of Whazzup Guys Anonymous. Sandra says that ten people are already well on their way toward recovery, and several others are just starting the process. "We're much like any other addiction recovery program," she explains. "It's our unconditional support for one another that helps us get through this." Rather than a twelve step method, Sandra encourages some tangible sign of progress every week. "It could be anything - it could be choosing some other way to greet your friends. It could be going to a Japanese restaurant and not feeling the urge to say 'Wasaaaaabi'."

Treatable affliction

About five months after Sandra started Whazzup Guys Anonymous, Temple University sociologist Jared Pemberton asked to sit in on a session. Since then, he has been studying the individuals who are affected by Whazzup addiction. He estimates that about 150 people in the United States are currently seeking treatment for this addiction, either at support groups like Whazzup Guys Anonymous or with therapists. He also estimates that many more, perhaps as many as 100,000, are addicted but are not being treated.

"There are many afflictions, mental and physical alike, that can be treated," Pemberton says. "Though Whazzup addiction is a relatively new phenomenon, it can be dealt with. In fact, a number of people are showing very encouraging progress. Sandra, for example, has been exposing herself to groups of addicts every week, always making positive contributions to their lives."

Sandra doesn't try to declare herself cured. "Whenever I watch a sporting event on television, I know there's a chance of seeing a Whazzup commercial. And I don't try to avoid it because of that. Every time I see one of those commercials and I don't try to say it along with them, that's a little victory for me. We won't ever be able to say that we're cured, because people won't forget about Whazzup. Fads may fall out of fashion, but just because bell bottoms fell out of fashion doesn't mean they're forgotten."

Creature of habit

Is Anderson in denial? He faults the rigid stoicness rampant in the accounting industry for his failings. "Why did Upton-Webber dismiss me? They didn't like me saying 'Whazzuuuup' to all of my friends in the division," he declares. "Why do I get so few contracts? Nobody wants a friendly accountant. There's a belief amongst accountants that they have to consider their work the most fun thing they do all day. They can't handle someone like me, who actually likes being around people."

The twelve employees of Anderson and Greenhall do indeed like to be around one another. At some point, everyone has played on the company hockey team in a downtown league. Today, their opponents are Helmholtz Media Services. The Anderson and Greenhall squad has never practised together, and although this is evident in their lack of finesse, their enthusiasm shows equally clearly. Marisa Tordava receives a forearm bash from each of her teammates when she scores her team's only goal in a 3-1 loss. Anderson and Greenhall are still in the lower half of the league table, but they show little concern.

Each match is followed by a trip to dinner, the location chosen by a different player each time. Coincidentally, it is Tordava's choice today. Hence, we find ourselves at a jazz club. Tordava and her passengers arrived first, and when Anderson's automobile arrives, there is more Whazzuping in the air. A few patrons look this way.

"I guess I'm a creature of habit," Anderson tells us. "Every time I see one of my friends, the word Whazzup comes automatically. I can't control it."

Anderson is surprised at the idea that he has a problematic addiction. "Most people like it, but there are those accountants who are always so down on it. I can't understand it. We're accountants, not robots."

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