Uber's CEO: A guiding star or a nice man in an ad?

Uber decides to have its CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, front its new ad campaign. Will customers and drivers warm to this approach?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

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It's hard not being the chosen one.

Especially when your predecessor chose himself to be the chosen one, only to realize that his chosen strategy was thought by some to be a trifle unpleasant.

Yet here is Uber's still relatively new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, suddenly appearing in the middle of NBA playoff games.

He's starring in a new ad campaign that seeks to reassure customers and drivers that Uber is now run by a nice, kind person. As opposed to, one assumes, Travis Kalanick.

In the main ad, Khosrowshahi promises a new direction. "And I want you to know just how excited I am to write Uber's next chapter. With you," he says in the ad.

Honestly, I'm too busy writing other nonsense to co-write Uber's next chapter. Especially as it's an unpaid job. Perhaps you have more time.

But this all sounds less like an ad and more like a speech at an all-hands company meeting.

"One of our core values as a company is to always do the right thing," he says. Which, presumably, doesn't include the CEO berating one of the drivers and trying to teach him ignorant life lessons.

Still, I can't help but detect a whiff of "You're going to like the way you ride. I guarantee it."

George Zimmer was the star of extremely successful ads for Men's Wearhouse for a number of years. His delivery, especially of the last line, became iconic because his voice had the slightest tinge of old Hollywood. As he tried to sell you a cheap suit.

Khosrowshahi, on the other hand, isn't as natural a performer. He comes across as pleasant and reasonably warm. To expect him to pull off a TV tour-de-force, however, is a little much.

There used to be a saying in advertising -- attributed by many to ad agency founder David Ogilvy -- that "only in the gravest cases should you show your clients' faces."

By presenting Khosrowshahi and hearing him admit that the company needs change, Uber is going for that very elusive thing called sincerity.

It can easily come across as unctuous or even an attempt to hide something.

Here, the company is at least admitting that it has a severe image problem. But whose idea was it to have the CEO turn ad-pitcher in a rescue attempt? I asked Uber and will update, should I hear.

Once, at a precarious time in his company's history, Steve Jobs voiced one of the most famous ads of all time -- Apple's "Here's To The Crazy Ones." Just as an experiment.

Jobs, though, did one take and instinctively knew that this wasn't a line to cross. In any case, Richard Dreyfuss did it brilliantly.

Cut to 2016, however, and some Apple executives did slip themselves into an ad to tout the "All-new Apple Music." Without, to my eyes, all-new acting skills.

One of those executives was Apple Music's Bozoma Saint John, now Uber's first Chief Brand Officer.

This new Uber campaign, however, is something far more fundamental than that one Apple frippery. The mere fact that it's running during big NBA games suggests there's serious money behind it.

To place your CEO at the heart of it is to place an enormous burden on his wider likability. If you're making him interrupt the Golden State Warriors, your defense had better be good.

I fear consumers -- especially NBA fans -- might look at this hoary corporate speak and yearn for the days when Uber ran ads featuring, well, NBA players.

If I were an Uber driver, I'd also be concerned that this apparently very nice man ultimately might want to make me redundant, as the company embraces self-driving cars. Which it's struggling with currently.

I can't help thinking, indeed, that the people who will feel most positively about these ads are executives at Uber.

They'll feel good for (finally) trying to be nice.

The Warriors' Stephen Curry is nice. But he wins because there's a lot more to him than that.

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