The first time I saw Peloton's new holiday ad, I felt many things, none of them good. And that was before I discovered that the ad blew up the internet. I developed commercials for Procter & Gamble for over two decades, so I have an informed point of view here, besides the fact that I'm also a human being.
First let me describe the commercial, and then you can watch it if you want, below.
A man gifts a woman with a Peloton exercise bike. As she gets on the bike she says, "A little nervous, but excited. Let's do this." The ad shows the woman getting into the habit of daily Peloton sessions, congratulating herself, taking selfies, and proclaiming she's surprised she's been at it five days in a row (even begrudgingly getting up for a 6 a.m. ride).
The interactive feature is quickly shown in which an instructor from afar apparently gives the woman a shout out, prompting her to say with almost desperate pride, "She just said my name!" We then learn the commercial itself is a documentary that the woman has been capturing to show her husband how grateful she is for the gift. She says, "A year ago, I didn't realize how much this would change me. Thank you."
Here's Where Peloton Went Wrong
Most of the backlash about the ad is that it's sexist. The husband wants his wife to get in shape and so he gives her a Peloton, and then looks satisfied as she thanks him for the gift and the transformation. Actually, that part of the backlash seems to me that we're just oversensitive. A husband can't give his wife exercise equipment as a gift without being in the wrong?
However, I think there's something else that actually is sexist about the ad: the way the woman is portrayed. She comes across as unsure, timid, fearful, and needing approval. Perhaps some customers actually feel like this, and feel that a Peloton can help them change that about themselves. But there's an issue with playing off that. People don't want to see the negative side of themselves in ads. The need for change has to be presented in a more positive, aspirational light.
Consumers don't buy just a product. They also buy into what lifestyle the product represents. They buy aspirations. (Buy a Peloton and maybe you're trading up in life, by getting more fit.) It's a reasonable marketing strategy. But here, it's just confusing. How did the woman's life change? She's slender and attractive at the start of the ad and she looks exactly the same at the end. It's also unrealistic. I found myself puzzled at why she was taking selfies. The whole commercial is a year-long project for her to thank her husband for a bike? Who does that?
I don't want to understate the impact that a stationary bike can have on a person's life. In fact, Peloton told CNN in a statement that it hears that consumers are often surprised about the extent of the impact the bike has had. Fair enough. But that doesn't come across clearly. The stakes don't seem high enough for the woman (she wants to go from thin to thin?) and the impact is portrayed in an unclear manner.
There are two cardinal sins in advertising. Creating an ad that produces no reaction whatsoever. You don't laugh, cry, think. You feel nothing. Wallpaper. The second is when you confuse the consumer. There's not a faster way to waste your money.
I've seen some online commentary saying that because the ad has gone viral, even if for the wrong reason, it's good for the brand. But CNN reported that Peloton stock dipped 9 percent on Tuesday (also in conjunction with the company's decision to lower the price of its workout app). The Peloton company has responded to the controversy by saying, "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."
If a company spokesperson ever uses the phrase "what we were trying to communicate," it's not a good ad.
So this holiday, I wish for better commercials for the Peloton company. And world peace.