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Undercover Lyft
4 Feb

Undercover Lyft. Celebrities, Hidden Cameras and Controversy (Updated)

Updated February 2017. It’s been eight months since we first wrote about the advertising campaign of ridesharing company Lyft. The campaign, called Undercover Lyft features celebrity Lyft drivers that pick up unsuspecting customers. We’ve updated our article to cover video viewing stats through February 3, 2017. We’ve also added three new reviews.

 The Three Elements Lyft Uses to Create Marketing Success

The Undercover Lyft videos employ a formula that combines the following three elements:

1. People being fooled by a situation in which the audience feels certain they themselves would not be fooled.
2. The participation of celebrities
3. Controversy

Together, they are a recipe for high virality.

The Undercover Lyft Formula has created hit media for nearly 70 years

Lyft’s formula is one that has succeeded on radio and television for seventy years; prank unsuspecting people. At the end of the show, reveal the secret that the audience is already in on. Viewers can then watch the participants as they recognize the absurdity of the situation that they have been in all along. People love to watch other people getting fooled. This was the premise of Candid Camera, a classic tv show that started in 1948. The format has continued to succeed until this day.

Ashton Kutcher, Justin Timberlake and the IRS

Punk’d, a show which started in 2002 featured Ashton Kutcher pulling pranks on unsuspecting celebrities. They executed this formula to perfection. A celebrity pranking celebrities? How could it miss? It didn’t. And it started off with a bang. In the first episode, Kutcher had actors disguised as IRS agents show up at Justin Timberlake’s home claiming that his property was being seized due to unpaid taxes. Believing you screwed up your taxes is something most anyone can believe. The show ran until 2007. It then took a five year hiatus and returned in 2012 with new host Justin Bieber. In the end, Punk’d pranked celebrities for ten full seasons.


Undercover Lift

Undercover Lyft, the Controversy

In Undercover Lyft, the company dispatches a celebrity to pick up a series of passengers. The campaign has had celebrities such as Shaquille O’Neal, Danica Patrick and Jerry Rice. Now what could be controversial about Lyft’s videos? It’s the show’s premise. How could the riders not recognize a 7’1” 345 pound basketball player who was only thinly disguised in the video? How could riders in San Francisco not recognize Jerry Rice, a wide receiver who starred for the 49ers for 15 years winning three Super Bowls and breaking more than 100 NFL records? It’s this debate that has been taking place in the comments and reviews of the videos ever since they started. In our analysis, this has only added fuel to the fire. 

How Lyft Makes the Magic Happen

The explanation is really quite simple. Lyft can record riders until they have enough clips to create one of the videos.  They can also choose which riders to send the celebrities out to pick up. Notice that any of the riders were from out-of-town. We must also consider the role of expectation. You just don’t expect to find a major celebrity pulling up to give you a “lyft”. But we viewers are already in on the joke and we are already laughing at the absurdity of it all even before it happens.

The Undercover Lyft Videos

These are now eleven official Undercover Lyft videos. A series as entertaining as this one will keep a lot of people checking back in for more videos. That is the power of a strong content marketing campaign. This table shows the number of views each video has received and each video’s release date.

Undercover Lyft Videos

Here are our favorite Undercover Lyft videos

NFL Star Odell Beckham Jr.

Whether it be the dancing, one-handed grabs, or his on the field antics. NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. is an entertainer in every sense of the word. So when Lyft was able to land him for one of their Undercover marketing videos, you had a feeling it was going to be entertaining. Hiding his “ramen noodle” looking hair, Odell was able to keep his identity under wraps for the duration of the car ride. You do not know the location, but you can tell they are in New York with most of them giving recognition to the Giants football team. This of course, with OBJ asking probing questions like, “So do you even like that Beckham guy with all his dancing?” Hoping maybe someone would talk a little trash, with him sitting right there….not good.

The best reaction comes from a lady who is in love with him, yet doesn’t know she is being taxied around by him? Almost having a panic attack, Odell had to remind her to breathe after taking off his hat and giving away his identity. This video is four weeks old and has already garnished over 2.5 million views. This being almost a million views more than some of the older videos that have been out for months. Lyft scored a touchdowm with this one.

Singer, Songwriter and Actress Demi Lovato

“I just insulted the hell out of you.” Now that’s not something you have said to your face every day. Demi Lovato, recently nominated for her first Grammy, decided to go undercover while she was in the middle of her tour. While talking with one of her passengers about Demi Lovato songs, Demi takes the opportunity to put her rider in an awkward situation. Lovato states that Selena Gomez is sooo much better than Demi Lovato. Her passenger takes the bait and trashes Demi right in front of her….oops.

Coming to the realization after the ride is over, a quick hug is in order. The awkward moment reaches its full effect during the hug when the passenger says, “I just insulted the hell out of you.” At least she was honest. The other passengers showed nothing but love for Demi even with Demi trying to set them up. Demi knows how to play a part. She sure has some loyal fans.

NFL Star Rob Gronkowski

No, it’s not Garth from Wayne’s World. This is Rob Gronkowski, an NFL star who tried his best to hide his identity and fool his passengers while taking a stroll through Foxborough. Equipped with not much for a disguise and a high pitched voice, Rob meets a man from Detroit. Gronkowski asks this man, “Have you ever met Rob Gronkowski before?” The guy flat out lies to him and tells Gronk that he has met Rob Gronkowski before at a very specific restaurant. It is clear from Rob’s reaction that he had never been there.

Maybe there was some alcohol involved here. Who knows? At the end of the ride they get to do the signature Rob Gronkowski football spike in the middle of a parking lot. Not a bad way to end a car ride. Unlike most of these passengers, I would have known it was Rob Gronkowski the instant I sat down. Would you have known who you were sitting next to? I wonder how many people they had to go through before they finally got someone in Foxborough who didn’t recognize him?

Racecar Driver Danica Patrick

We’d be completely OK with Danica Patrick picking us up for a ride. Danica is the most successful woman in the history of American auto-racing.  She provides some hilarious commentary in this episode of Undercover Lyft, each line being delivered in perfect deadpan. We love how Lyft showed every passenger looking frightened at some point in the video. That their fears eventually turn to laughs makes the entire video that much better.

NFL Star Richard Sherman

The Seattle Seahawks Cornerback is just talk, talk, talk with high enthusiasm the entire video. This itself makes the video entertaining. The hints that Sherman drops are easily picked up by those of us watching the video but the passengers miss them. This adds to our feeling of being an insider. We’re invited to be in on the joke from the beginning.  

Baseball Star Kris Bryant

Kris Bryant, the Chicago Cubs’ Third Baseman and the 2003 Rookie of the Year, has only been in the majors for two years. His game is still developing. Even with no disguise, Kris Bryant is unrecognizable as an everyday Lyft driver.  To these unsuspecting Chicagoans, it makes for a memorable ride with a rising local star

We thought the comments after the video were quite unusual. CBS Sports asks in the comments for permission to use the video on their platform. Lyft and Chris Bryant both reply with their consent. Here is a screenshot of the exchange.


NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice

Gotta love how Rice let’s ‘em know what’s up. “I’m Jerry Rice. Hall of Famer”.  Even with the hat, sunglasses and beard, it is hard to disguise one of the greatest football players to have ever played in the NFL. We like how he had to take his Super Bowl ring off before picking up passengers. Rice is perfect for Lyft’s campaign. He’s a huge celebrity picking up passengers in the city that knows him best.

Speaking of huge celebrities …

Shaq! NBA Hall of Famer

Are you not entertained! Shaq has one of the most unique personalities, not only in sports but in all of entertainment. I grew up idolizing this man because he was tall and was one of the most athletic big men to ever play the game. Shaq is a big teddy bear. I would like to say I am a teddy bear as well.  Take a look as Shaq tries to go undercover for Lyft.

Editor’s Note: “Big Mike” played college basketball. Whenever the marketing team is discussing branding, someone inevitably talks about Mike’s personal brand. Mike is TALL. Mike is a BASKETBALL PLAYER. Within seconds of meeting him, you will know the first and suspect the second.

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