In early April, as the world was being forced into insolation and varying degrees of social distancing, Uber’s taxi service became, somewhat, unnecessary. As a result the brand, already scarred with allegations of mistreating its drivers, must be in crisis. However instead of going off the radar Uber released a new advertising campaign—Thank You For Not Riding—in many ways flipping the idea of a commercial on it’s head. The minute-long spot draws together various clips of user-generated content (UGC), from people at home all over the world, to promote the worldwide message to stay at home, to save lives. Foregrounding the fact that their service is currently obsolete but, importantly, for the right reason.
Such a message is, of course, embraced by all of mankind wishing to cull the spread of the virus and save lives—netting the brand some kudos. Moreover, the videos touching tone, likely to stimulate a smile on the faces of those stuck at home, enforces an air of positive connectivity contrasting the wealth of news, doom and gloom surrounding COVID-19. A tone which, ultimately, hones in on the fact that we’re all in this together, no matter our age, race, gender. This reframing of their service-based advertising into promoting a positive brand identity (in this case foregrounding humility) is, really, the brand’s only option to keep them relevant given the worldly circumstances. Such necessity is also reflected in the formal qualities of the advert comprising of UGC. But beyond the lack of alternative, such a turn in advertising style may in fact benefit Uber long-term.
Much research has been devoted, since the mid 2000s, to UGC and it’s application to advertising. Most frequently we encounter this mode of advertising on social media, through the wash of hash tags created by users or brands themselves, regardless the effects appear to be the same. George Christodoulides et al (2012), in a study found that 70% of brand related searches on social-media sites are related specifically to UGC, and only 30% are related to that created by marketers themselves. Pointing out the overall trend that the proliferation of UGC results in a large increase in brand engagement, provided the brand has already achieved a certain level of ubiquity (as to be already recognisable). Bringing this research into the realm of video, not just social-media presence, a study undertaken by Junkin media and The University of Southern California shows that viewers perceived user-generated ads as more memorable (31%), unique (28%), authentic (11%), engaging (5%) and, relatable (8%) than traditional ads. Also netting 73% more positive comments on social networks, pointing towards a greater engagement.
Beyond all these statistics, this generally points to idea that UGC is more effective advertising for creating brand recognition, engagement and identity within consumers. As such, way back in 2008 Jarrett et al (2008) observed advertisers taking advantage of these statistics by repositioning their advertising campaigns to look similar to UGC (without actually being UGC) in order to cash in on the form’s greater consumer acceptance.
Looking back upon Uber’s Thank You For Not Riding all these statistics make sense, at least to me. It is hard to tell whether the advertising is genuine UGC or if the clips were commissioned to look similar to it (although it is likely to be a mishmash of both), however their affect is clear—a residually positive message, which warms me towards the company while side-lining their turbulent recent history. Furthermore the brand’s willingness to give up on their business-driven monetary needs in order to foreground a positive and socially relevant message brings them further into the light. In this way it sidesteps the somewhat sordid advertisements which cash in on topics such as gender-identity through the mantra we accept you so buy our product. Instead as the want to sell a product/service has entirely dissolved the message appears all the more genuine—even though it is still ultimately an advertisement.