Peloton Goes Viral For All the Wrong Reasons

The picture-perfect world of Peloton, where happy, fit, beautiful couples and their adorable young children live in spacious designer homes graced with lush views of nature, was seriously disturbed this week as the internet blew up with negative reactions to the company’s holiday ad.

The plot line of the ad is straightforward and, on its surface, not particularly controversial. A husband gives his wife a Peloton for Christmas. She loves it and starts working out every day, sometimes rising as early as 6AM! She records her journey with selfies, which she shares with her husband one year later when Christmas comes around again.

Similar to Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner fiasco, Peloton’s latest is so tone deaf to be mind-boggling. How, in the #metoo era, this ad could be approved, produced and released is beyond me. At least Peloton seemed to have a strategy, which was sorely lacking in the Pepsi effort, unless you really believe that a can of soda can defuse a confrontation with the evil oppressors and lead to world peace.

Problems with the Peloton ad are two-fold. First, while there appears to be a strategy of “transformation,” i.e., one is significantly improved in some way by using the machine, the nature of that transformation is left entirely to the viewer’s imagination. It makes me wonder what the creative brief looked like. As a strategist, I have to wonder how such an important element could be omitted. Wouldn’t you want to provide specific direction for the creative teams, detailing the emotional and physical nature of that transformation?

Is she more fit? Tougher? More disciplined? Calmer? Other than feeling a sense of achievement (“I did it five days in a row, can you believe it?”), what, exactly is the benefit here?

Of course, some of my best creative briefs have been completely ignored by agencies, with the tacit blessing of the clients, so who knows what really happened here.

The execution of the ad, from copy to casting, is simply horrendous. The ad deserves the “cringe-worthy” description that frequently pops up in the press and on social media for several reasons:

    1. Why does the husband give a Peloton to his wife in the first place? She’s as pretty and fit as can be. Does he need her to be even thinner? What message is he sending?
    2. She is depicted as weak, helpless and shallow. As she sits on the bike for her first ride, she looks directly at her camera phone and says, “I’m nervous but excited. Let’s do this.” Peloton must have research that reflects the anxiety of the first-time rider, but the actress delivers the line as if she’s a deer in the headlights. Her tone of voice, body language and facial expressions convey a fear better suited to going off to war than hopping on an exercise bike, alone in the comfort of her own home. It doesn’t help when a bit later on, she gleefully gushes that, “She (the instructor) said my name!”
    3. Selfies are so ten years ago. Such a cliché. And would they use this device to tell the story if it were a man? Probably not. More important, is has she documented her journey for herself or as a proof point to her husband for his approval?
    4. Speaking of men, where’s the husband? Why is it only the woman on the bike? This directly reinforces that perception that he bought this gift to “fix” something about his wife. If we saw them both using it, getting in shape and going through some kind of transformation together, there wouldn’t be a whiff of this.

Deer in the Headlights

Peloton’s stock price dipped 10% after the deluge of criticism hit the internet, but despite the suggestions of some marketing pundits, there are likely much better explanations for the slide. Regardless, if the ad is quickly withdrawn, we’re all likely forget about this in a few days. As we see every day in politics, social media spikes are usually the result of the passionate few, not the majority.

However, I did find Peloton’s statement in reaction to the storm of criticism problematic, and unless there’s a shift in tone and content, problems could persist.

“Our holiday spot was created to celebrate that fitness and wellness journey,” the statement said. “While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial, we are encouraged by — and grateful for — the outpouring of support we’ve received from those who understand what we were trying to communicate.”

Talk about tone deaf. “Misinterpreted?” Consumers aren’t supposed to be ad experts, searching for that nugget of strategy in our ads. They see what they see, feel what they feel and think what they think. The statement is as arrogant as the art director pacing the back room in a focus group facility, complaining that the respondents are “too stupid to get my ad.”

How about, “We were trying to demonstrate how people are transformed by our product, feeling healthier, calmer and more confident with regular use. We didn’t quite get it right and we’re sorry. We’ll do much better next time.’

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