While Uber stages celebrity rides, Lyft wins with a full-on ten minute CoCo ad

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on December 12, 2013

From The News Desk

"Have you ever had to hose the car down [after giving someone a Lyft]?" says Conan O'Brien.

"There was one time when one gentleman vomited in the car, so I did have to," says Lyft driver Anthony Duran.

"Who's sitting in that seat?" says O'Brien.

"You are sir," quips Duran.

If Lyft co-founder John Zimmer had a weird Conan O' Brien themed dream it might go something like that. But this was no dream. It was the weirdest, unplanned, un-paid-for commercial for Lyft that the world has seen. And that’s saying something for a company that uses fluffy pink moustaches and fist bumps to market itself.

Lyft's biggest PR fantasies came true last night, when Conan 'O Brien opened the show with segment of him, Ice Cube, and comedian Kevin Hart catching the ridesharing service for the first time. It was far more flattering than the Conan clip of TechCrunch's Drew Olanoff getting run over by a bus while being a total glasshole.

Lyft wasn't involved (or so they say). Driver Anthony Duran didn't know it would happen ahead of time either. And no, it was definitely not safe for work: The ten minute clip runs the gamut from discussing whether anyone had ever had sex in Duran's car to the trio faking they kidnapped Duran when his roommate Matt called. And yet this "accidental" ten minute segment tells you more about the dichotomy between Lyft and arch-rival Uber than any tech blog could.

The clip may be seen as Lyft's come-to-Papa moment; the first time the startup has broken out into national pop culture consciousness. The cherry on top was that the filming took place in LA, where Uber and Lyft have locked horns over who will own the juicy ridesharing market. Everyone in LA loves the idea of fewer cars on the road, and there’s woeful public transportation. There’s also the celebrity factor when it comes to endorsing consumer Web and mobile apps.

Uber tapped that before officially launching in LA, making Edward Norton Driver #1 (if you don't count Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's parents, who were LA Uber Drivers #0). Only that was actually a publicity stunt, pre-arranged by Uber's investors. The Lyft clip was sheer happenstance. It's the epitome of the difference between Uber and Lyft. Uber is about orchestrating and projecting a baller experience; Lyft is about wacky serendipity that comes with hopping in strangers' cars. And both are about extreme convenience, as CoCo mocked in a November parody ad for the "Ruumber" -- Uber when you're too lazy to walk around your house.

With $82.5 million in the bank, Lyft is still "lean" compared to Uber and a baby with only a year and a half under its belt. But it's rapidly emerging as Uber's biggest competitive threat as other ridesharing apps stumble.

The bigger piece of luck in this non-commercial commercial is that a funny driver picked up Conan's call. Duran just owned the segment. We caught up with Duran today who described the bit as one of the most surreal moments of his life. He confirmed that he didn't know he was picking up Conan until he arrived, as he used the name "Chip" on his Lyft account.

“For a couple minutes I was a little nervous,” Duran says. “I figured [Lyft] knew nothing about this, because there was no one there from Lyft. I was very aware not to play fan boy and gush them with praise. I was also aware that my job was not to be the funny guy, my job was to chime in occasionally.”

A long 10 minute segment was a distilled from an even longer hour of riding around LA. After they wrapped, Conan told him Duran they'd originally planned to take a bunch of different Lyfts, but decided to stick with him.

It could have so easily gone wrong. Even Duran admits he was a little worried about painting Lyft in a bad light, “I didn't want it to be like this is what a Lyft driver does, they take you on a quest for weed,” Duran says.

Indeed, Uber might have taken issue with a driver like Duran. While Uber drivers are supposed to be polite and professional, Lyft drivers are encouraged to inject their own personality into the service. (Duran told Conan he would, for instance, take sex for payment.)

Most importantly, the essence of Lyft is that drivers and passengers are equals. Passengers sit in the front and drivers are expected to chat with them. It's supposed to be as much about meeting people as getting around. Duran was clearly part of the crew, nailing some of the best punchlines of the segment, right on brand.

Duran even wrapped up our call with a quote Lyft’s PR team would be proud of. "[This] shows how we're different from a taxi company," he says. "It's much more about the community, about building this circle of trust between the people you pick up and the drivers."

Every startup relies on luck, and Lyft just got a truck-load. Duran should get his own gold-plated moustache.