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Social-Media’s Latest Exercise: Getting Worked Up Over a Peloton Ad

Analysis: There are plenty of things worth sweating over. This commercial probably isn't one of them.

People say they no longer watch TV commercials. And yet,, hundreds appear to have scrutinized an ad from interactive-workout company Peloton with an intensity so vigorous it threatens to overwhelm the web.

By now you’ve no doubt heard:  Peloton, which makes exercise gear and provides a streaming-video service that offers workouts tailored to it, recently released a commercial in which a young wife chronicles her workouts on one of the company’s exercise machines. It was given to her for Christmas by her husband, and she makes a video thanking her spouse for the gift. “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me,” she says, adding, “Thank you.”

Opinionators on Twitter and other social-media outlets have taken issue with the commercial, pronouncing it sexist and disparaging the company as a promulgator of lifestyles for the 1%. These detractors suggest the ad’s female protagonist is being put under pressure to stay thin and slim even though she is already maintains an attractive build. Parody videos call for the woman to serve her spouse with divorce papers.

Twitter outrage has forced a quicker end to many commercials in recent years – and with better evidence. Pepsi, for example, yanked a big-budget ad featuring Kendall Jenner in 2017 that depicted her leaving a modeling shoot to join an ambiguous phalanx of protesters as they met with police. Critics charged the commercial was making light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Finding similar elements in the Peloton commercial is difficult. The husband barely utters a word, and makes no comment on his spouse’s appearance. For all the viewer knows, the couple may have had an off-camera discussion about ways they both might stay healthy while attending to the duties of working and raising a young family. Perhaps the husband uses the bike at times his wife does not.

Peloton, at present, does not seem inclined to pull the spot. “We constantly hear from our members how their lives have been meaningfully and positively impacted after purchasing or being gifted a Peloton Bike or Tread, often in ways that surprise them. Our holiday spot was created to celebrate that fitness and wellness journey,” the company 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.”

There is not a unified reaction to the ad. Peloton has been distributing social-media postings of support for the commercial.  During Wednesday’s broadcast of “CBS This Morning,” co-anchor Gayle King expressed ambivalence about the controversy. “If I was Peloton, I would not get engaged in this,” said the host.  If you can’t win over Gayle King, well…

And that may give Peloton some wiggle room.

To be sure, the company’s stock price slumped in today’s trading session as well as Tuesday’s. Tying that stock drop to the commercial may be difficult.  Peloton also seems to have recently lowered the cost of a digital-only subscription (subscriptions to its services linked to its equipment remain the same). Its overall stock trajectory has been relatively healthy since its IPO in October.

Some advertising observers may be surprised that Peloton’s ad has caused so much controversy. It contains none of the elements that marketers tap these days to make an ad go viral. There are no elements of raunch, no shocking scenario or cringe-worthy moment that would seem tailor-made to spark digital conversation.

In contrast, consider these recent commercials from other advertisers that seem to be bending over backwards to get attention. A recent ad from Postmates, an online delivery service, shows a clumsy would-be chef cutting off his finger while trying to follow an instructional cooking video from Martha Stewart. A new ad from Folgers Coffee, owned by J.M. Smucker Company, shows a young woman hoping to surprise her husband with an amorous encounter during his morning shower – only to discover her father-in-law behind the bathroom curtain.

 

These commercials use cheap laughs and shock tactics, while doing very little to explain the benefits and advantages of what they are trying to sell. And yet, neither seems to have generated much backlash.

Meanwhile, Peloton’s detractors are doing something the company on its own could not. By passing the ad along and raising criticism, they are granting Peloton millions of dollars in free publicity. Should “Saturday Night Live” or another late-night program pay the social-media chatter new heed and make a parody of it, it will give Peloton the equivalent of another advertising cycle, for which it will pay not a single penny.

In decades past, Madison Avenue cranked out TV ads by the hundreds, content that even if some element of the audience was offended by them, that crowd had very few avenues to express its displeasure. In 2019, that is definitely not the case, and every advertiser needs to tread much more carefully.

Peloton probably needed to calibrate its message more carefully, and might have examined its commercial with an eye towards eliminating the possibility for unintended interpretation. At the same time, the company’s detractors might consider that not every ad that offends is intended to do so.

Here’s something both sides can get exercised about: Better advertising.

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