The recent criticism of Peloton’s latest bike ad is emblematic of where we are as a society and culture in 2019. The case of obtuse and presumably misintended offense, imperceptive to some but plain as day to others, is representative of a new breed of sensitivity that will apparently take some people, including some advertisers, a while to adjust to—even if the concept of the criticism has been front and center in society at least since #MeToo. By our 2019 yardstick, a cultural injustice has clearly been committed.
But the brand’s stiff-armed response is a brave new world for brand marketers and PR. Peloton is sticking by its ad, and it’s a message, even amid the flurry of insensitivities alleged against them, including sexism, elitist entitlement, and a creepy inter-relationship power dynamic. The brand said it’s “disappointed“ in the misinterpretation, but has gone no further—a pretty radical move in today’s marketing landscape, where crisis experts have trained brands to apologize immediately and without a second thought regarding actual blame or intention.
And why such a rigid response from a start-up who has seen its stock plummet in the wake of the controversy? The brand simply thinks the ad was misunderstood—and just as important, it remains popular.
In case you haven’t seen it (really?), take a look:
What the critics are saying
The spot shows a woman documenting the use of the equipment for a year, having received the bike as a holiday gift from her husband. We see her working out, sometimes reluctantly so, through a series of selfies and videos. She’s so pleased with her progress that in the end, she thanks her partner for “changing her life.”
The criticisms note the sheer occasion of a husband giving such a gift, which could be implying that his wife needs to slim down and get herself in shape, compounded by her vivid sense of nervousness and perhaps even fear—which many have called “cringeworthy“ in the online backlash. You know, like this look:
The entitlement arguments stem from the company’s portrayal of well-to-do customers, for which it has been criticized in the past. This point seems less substantial, given that the bike itself retails for more than $2,200, and a membership for its virtual classes costs $40 a month. Who would we expect to see using such a product in ads?
The unusual crisis response
Despite all of this reaction from consumers and media— The Washington Post even called the ad “a dystopian fitness inspo hellscape“—Peloton says it won’t be taking the ad down, nor has it issued an apology in the classic sense.
One might think Peloton would shift gears and apologize just to reignite its stock, which tanked the same day as the complaints started going viral. But market experts say the tumble was coincidental, based more on investors’ perceptions of the brand’s Black Friday performance and other analytical factors, and not just because of an eyebrow-raising ad.
In the end, we’ll probably end up chalking this experience up to an emotional journey that was presented rather clumsily, one that probably meant no harm but wasn’t executed with proper regard for the times and our cultural position. But it will be interesting to see how Peloton’s reputation holds up, both in the short term and long term, and how other brands will react under similar circumstances in the future. We may well be witnessing a crisis-response turning point, the lessons of which may still be unraveling for some time to come.