Commentary

Lyft 'Borrows' Pepsi Undercover-Celeb Bit, Poorly

How long a memory do you suppose most of us have for stuff we saw on the Internet? A couple of days, maybe? I’m not including myself in this calculation; I can’t remember what I had for lunch today, even though an empty plate festooned with smears of peanut butter and be-jellied crumbs is within my immediate line of sight. I have to think, though, that for people who didn’t beer their brains into submission during the first decade of this century, the most memorable brand content endures for at least a little while. It resonates. It leaves a mark.

I bring this up because Lyft, the Pepsi to Uber’s Coca-Cola, has seemingly appropriated a Pepsi concept from a few years back. Remember the Jeff Gordon video in which Gordon, in full milquetoast mode, takes an unsuspecting car salesman on a joy ride? It’s one of the most memorable brand videos of all time (though let’s be careful of conflating “most memorable” with “most effective,” because it’s not like we came away from it thinking “dude, I need to amp my glutes with some Pepsi Max”). I think back to it every time I come across a celebrity-in-disguise-interacting-with-mere-un-Instagrammable-mortals clip. It’s an easy first-ballot inductee to the Brand Video Hall of Fame.

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And if it’s not the first thing you mentally reference upon seeing “Undercover Lyft with Danica Patrick,” either you’ve got some kind of “Memento” thing going on, or you’re a member of Lyft’s creative team.

In the clip, Patrick dons just enough of a disguise -- shades and a stocking cap, as opposed to Gordon’s appearance-veiling ensemble -- to keep her identity concealed from the six or seven folks she ferries around town as a Lyft driver. But the general concept is the same: Patrick gets aggressive behind the wheel, telling her charges they need to “buckle up for safety -- you might need it” and faux-challenging other drivers at a stoplight to a race.

And still Lyft manages to mangle the most entertaining part of the driver-goes-rogue bit, in that it’s not entirely clear that Patrick ever exceeds the speed limit. We lose the passenger-reaction shots, which were what made the Gordon/Pepsi video sing. One or two of them let out a nervous laugh, but that could just as easily be in response to Patrick’s wooden banter about how her boyfriend doesn’t like her driving and how she “loves making left turns.”

Overtalky cab drivers -- we’ve all been there. I had this one guy who attempted to convince me, over the course of a 90-minute ride back from the airport, that Ringo was the most important Beatle because “he was friends with everyone.”

Anyway, “Undercover Lyft” ends with the expected reveal (“this is so crazy!”), then the passengers take their selfies and go home. Contrast that with the Pepsi kicker, in which the terrified salesman asks Gordon for another spin around the course. One of these leaves you laughing, the other leaves you feeling pretty much as you did before you made the fateful decision to click. I’ll leave you to sort out which is which.

I’m not accusing Lyft of stealing Pepsi’s bit, but… well, I can’t think of a way to finish that thought. But it ultimately doesn’t matter, because really: Why on earth is a next-gen taxi company like Lyft trying to entertain us? While it can’t hurt for Lyft to attempt to carve out a brand identity distinct from Uber and the rest of the competition, right now the last thing any company in the space should be doing is calling into question the sanity and safety-mindedness of its drivers.

Overblown or not, there’s a sense that passengers put themselves at risk every time they hail an Uber or a Lyft. Safety isn’t just the number-one issue confronting these companies; it’s the number one, two, three, four and so on, up to around 724, issue. Even a gently joking suggestion that a car-service driver has a few loose wires, like the one around which Patrick’s “Undercover Lyft” revolves, isn’t funny or entertaining. It’s tone-deaf in a way that begs the question: Who’s in charge here?

You know what would’ve been a great idea for a Lyft brand video featuring Danica Patrick? One in which she walks viewers through Lyft’s safety protocols and background-check procedures, paying special attention to violence against women. If Lyft wants to distinguish itself, there’s the way past the brand-awareness/-affinity bouncer. This? This is piffle.

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