Peloton, a maker of high end exercise bikes, is no stranger to social media criticism. The brand’s bikes, which sell for upwards of $2,000, is often accused of being elitist and having its ads, which feature its bikes in very posh settings, mocked. But the brand’s latest holiday ad was a cringe-y bad ad that seemed ripped out of the Twilight Zone. It’s no surprise that it blew up in social media. But Peloton’s response, a non-apology apology that lobs a condescending insult at offended consumers, might even be a worse fail than the bad ad itself.
Let’s start with a basic understanding of the Peloton brand image. It’s an upscale, aspirtaional brand. Not everyone can afford a $2,000USD+ exercise bike and the brand takes a good deal of shots for what some consumers believe is elitism. For example:
The Peloton 2019 holiday ad begins with a young married woman, who appears to be very fit, looking very troubled after receiving a Peloton stationary bike as a holiday gift from her husband and begins documenting her one year fitness journey. The story could easily have been a pleasant one. For example, it could have started with our main character getting the bike saying something that conveyed that she really wanted the bike for a long time and is very excited about using it. Instead, the actress’s facial expressions create a sense that she isn’t happy about the situation, that the husband bought her the bike because he wants her to meet his expectations. There’s an atmosphere of unease. The actress looks very worried about her gift, leaving the viewer to wonder why. All in all, the ad is a mess that leaves the viewer wondering why the wife looks so stressed over her gift. The director and client manager who signed off on this ad were either oblivious to the troubled facial expressions of the actress or they didn’t think it was a problem.
Many social media users largely found the actress’s troubled facial expressions convey that the exercise bike is more like an ultimatum from a controlling husband; that it represents a demand that the wife exercises in order to meet his expectations for him. In an interview on The Today Show, Monica Ruiz, the actor who plays the wife in the ad, even attributed the negative reaction the ad received to her worried facial expressions.
Yes, you may consider that perception a pretty big leap. However, as brand stewards, once you put something out there for the public, you have to accept that the public may interpret it very differently than what you intended. Whatever your interpretation of the ad, the actress’s stressed out look is certainly a distraction from the mission of the ad and that is exactly why this creative should never have been approved. Any experienced marketer or brand manager should have been able to look at the actress’s facial expressions in the ad and say, “This needs to be re-shot. It greatly distracts the viewer from the story that we’re trying to tell.” But they also should have done something more to set up the gift, to show that this wasn’t a husband buying exercise equipment for his wife in order to get her in the shape he considers ideal. These were all very avoidable mistakes by the brand that resulted in this ad going viral for all the wrong reasons.
The old saying is that the customer is always right. And the reality is, the customers’ perception of your brand is the brand’s reality. If customers think the new ad you think is great is not great, it’s clearly not great. And the perception of this ad was overwhelmingly negative. Most consumers — and even many brand and psychology experts — saw the ad as poor, with a husband pushing his wife to meet his personal definition of perfection. Consumers referred to the ad as sexist, misogynistic and more. Some called it sexist, finding that the exercise bike from the husband seemed a lot like a demand that his wife lose weight. Some hilariously compared the ad to the dystopian Netflix series, “Black Mirror.” The wife character, often called “the Peloton wife,” was often seen as a woman trapped in a miserable relationship with a husband demanding her to meet his physical requirements. The fictional “Peloton wife” quickly grew a sympathetic following. Some examples:
In an AdAge interview, consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow referred to the Peloton ad as “a complete male fantasy ad,” noting that the she finds the Peloton ad targets men who would like “skinnier spouses.” AdWeek simply referred to it as a “dumb ad.” Social media users criticisms ranged from calling it sexist, the husband as abusive, misogynistic and more, while other social media users saw nothing wrong.
Clearly, when it comes to the interpretation of the ad, there’s a wide range of interpretations. But a smart brand respects how consumers perceive its communications and realizes that the consumer’s interpretation of brand messaging is what matters most. Clearly, that brand is not Peloton. Peloton’s very strange response to consumer criticism of the ad was to play the victim card and unleash their overflowing condescension. Take note as Peloton states that they’re “grateful” for the “outpouring of support we’ve received” and follows it up with an insulting, condescending shot at consumers who critcized their ad, stating that they’re “disappointed” in them:
“While we’re disappointed in how some of you 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.”
A smart brand listens to and respects consumers, after all a brand is nothing without them, as in the end, how the public sees the brand is what’s most important. Clearly, Peloton is not that brand. Peloton’s response to negative consumer reaction plays perfectly into negative perceptions of the brand as arrogant and elitist and their statement is so careless that one even wonders if Peloton’s management deliberately sought to use that statement to position their brand as arrogant and elitist, with the mindset that this position furthers the exclusive appeal of the product. The other, more likely, alternative is that the egos at Peloton’s PR department are so strong that they obscured any hint of good judgment.
Business Insider rightfully termed all of this a “PR disaster.” Inc’s headline nailed it, “Peloton’s Latest Ad Was Bad, But Its Response to the Criticism Was Far Worse.” AdFails agrees. Peloton could have responded to the criticism with a statement such as: “We attempted to create an ad that showed a spouse getting the gift she’d be hoping for, a Peloton bike, to reach her fitness goals. Unfortunately, the ad we created was interpreted as quite differently, in ways we never imagined, consequently, we heard you and we pulled the ad. We believe a Peloton bike to be something you look forward to getting for yourself or as a gift, and we’ll do our best to communicate that better in future ads.”
What would have been really smart is if Peloton went and continued with the couple in a series of light-hearted videos that made clear that the wife actually wanted the bike the husband bought her and the husband saying something supportive like, “I think you’re perfect like you are!” But this time, they’d inject humor in to have a little fun with their built-in audience and guaranteed attention that, at least the first video would receive. Hey Peloton, it’s still not too late. But none of that happened.
Instead, within weeks of the backlash, one very savvy brand saw opportunity in the ashes of Peloton’s ad fail. Aviation Gin, a brand owned by actor Ryan Reynolds. Aviation hired the actor who played the wife in the Peloton ad, Monica Ruiz, to do its own ad that continues her story. Aviator’s ad starts its story with the wife out with her girlfriends for drinks, celebrating “new beginnings,” cleverly implying that she’s left her husband and is starting anew. Note the last line in the ad, from a friend telling her, “You look great, by the way!” Clearly, the folks behind the Aviation ad get what Peloton failed to get and their brand was rewarded with very positive press and very positive social media reaction to their ad. The Aviation ad quickly went viral, and as of the time of this writing, has more than 4.7 million views on YouTube. While Peloton’s ad and response to consumer criticism is worthy of being a case study — for all the wrong reasons — Aviation’s ad is certainly worthy of being a best practice case study.
The real story here is about the importance of good judgment by those who manage a brand. Peloton’s first mistake was releasing an ad that sends unclear, negative messages. Very simply, this creative should never have been released.
The story should have been set up differently. Getting your significant other exercise equipment as a gift without any context can easily be interpreted as a hint that the gifting partner wants the recipient to get into their ideal shape. The story could easily addressed this, but it didn’t. Futher, the worry and tension on the actress’s face creates a perception that she is being forced into something she’s very uncomfortable with. The idea of a husband getting exercise equipment for his wife as a Christmas gift is easily perceived as an insult to begin with, so the negative reaction by the gift recipient only worsens things.
All of this greatly distracts from what should have been a happy experience and all of those involved in this ad should have noticed — but especially the client responsible for signing off on it. Peloton’s statement insulting consumers who interpreted the ad negatively, as a wife pushed into exercising by her husband, bizarely and arrogantly played the brand as a victim and critics as a victimizers. It is, perhaps, an even worse mistake than the ad itself. Will this harm the brand image long-term? Some brand and marketing experts believe it may cause some female consumers negative feelings toward the brand, but overall, not many expect it to have a significant impact. However, some business journalists have correlated the brand’s recent stock fall to the ad fail.
If this kind of mistake is not repeated, it’s unlikely to have a major impact on the brand image. However, if the brand makes future, similar mistakes, especially if they are perceived as portraying women in a similar manner, it could do lasting harm the brand image, especially with female consumers, and especially with those consumers who felt insulted by Peloton’s statement.
Peloton also missed a tremendous opportunity to use their viral infamy to do a series with this couple where they, for example, they could have created a series of webisodes with the couple to take advantage of the media and social media attention and brought in top-notch comedic writers to play with their ad fail, and, for example, show that the wife had always wanted a Peloton wife, that it wasn’t a gift forced upon her by a controlling husband — while having a little fun with the haters and the media. The future ads would likely start with a huge built-in audience and be guaranteed media coverage. Peloton could still do all of that, of course, but the longer they wait, the less attention it will receive.
Beyond Peloton, Aviation Gin provides a great example of how a smart brand can seize opportunities if it can move quickly. It’s fast, savvy response gained the brand very positive viral attention and widespread favorable media coverage. If Peloton is the loser in this story — and it is — Aviation Gin is clearly the winner.