Pepsi stormed YouTube last week with one of the year's most popular videos: a clip featuring Jeff Gordon, in disguise, taking a car salesman on the most frightening test drive of his life. The video is quickly closing in on 30 million views, and got almost 10 million in a single day, last Friday, according to data from Unruly Media. The spot has also taken some heat, though, for perhaps not being quite as real as it seems. (Not that viewers seem to mind. The clip has almost 100,000 likes, some 25 times the number of dislikes.) Adweek spoke with the video's director, Gifted Youth's Peter Atencio, perhaps best known for directing and producing every episode of Comedy Central's Key & Peele. Atencio spoke about the video's enormous success, the controversy around it, and what it is about prank videos that he loves so much.
We're up to almost 30 million views on this thing. Did you have any idea it would be this popular?
Not to this level, no. We felt when we were working on it that it was going to do pretty well, just from the reaction people were having when we showed it to friends. They seemed to really love it, and were asking a lot of questions about it.
Why do you think people love it so much?
Well, I think people just like to watch other people go through a harrowing experience, when it's from the comfort of their own computer. And it all works out OK—the salesman is laughing and happy in the end, which I think makes people feel more comfortable sharing it. If he had stayed really angry at the end, I don't think people would feel as good about it.
Was Jeff pretty into the idea of the prank?
Oh yeah. He's done so many commercials over the years. To do one where he gets to play with his image and do some improv, and not be the Jeff Gordon spokesperson that he is in so many commercials—this was more of a fun, almost experimental acting exercise for him. He had a lot of fun with it.
There have been stories saying parts of the video aren't as real as they seem. Can you clear any of that up and tell us what's real and what isn't?
I can't go into ultra specifics. There's always a balance. The things that are real are the things that were important to be real, which are the salesman's reactions to what was going on. And the elements that needed to be safe or done in a way that told the story we needed to tell, those were done in such a way that no one was in harm's way. There was definitely an eye toward making sure what we were doing was in no way dangerous. But we also wanted it to be real enough that the emotion that's there is something you couldn't fake.
From what you're saying, it sounds like the salesman is a real guy, not an actor.
He's very much a real guy. His real name is Steve, and he was in for the ride of his lifetime.
You also directed Pepsi's "Behind the Scenes at Coke Chase" video. Are you drawn to material that ambushes people or other brands?
Not necessarily that ambushes other brands, but I like things that play with the tropes that someone else has established. For that Pepsi ad, we just wanted to have a little fun with the universe that Coke had created and that they were taking very seriously. We just wanted to take a little air out of their tires on that one. And for this one, there's kind of a hidden-camera-prank movement, on YouTube especially, that we wanted to be a part of. That's what we do. I work on [Comedy Central sketch-comedy show] Key & Peele, and a lot of what we do there is play in the styles or genres of things that have already been established, and find ways to undermine them. It's just playing with people's expectations of conventions.
There's a lot of pranks happening in advertising lately—the elevator murder stunt, Nivea's airport ambushing. Why is it getting so popular?
I think it's definitely a trend we'll continue seeing. And I think the reason it's popular is just that there are so many prank videos on YouTube. Unfortunately a lot of them are mean-spirited for the sake of laughing at someone's expense. But between prank videos and Russian dash-cam videos, I think that's a big part of what people go online to watch these days.
And for brands, as long as they bring it back to a happy place at the end, they're probably in good shape.