The stationary cycle of controversial advertisements

Peloton's Christmas 2019 ad for an exercise bike ignited controversy.

A man gives a machine to a woman. Excitement flickers between the woman and her daughter on Christmas morning. No words are exchanged. She and her daughter smile, and the father’s face is not yet shown.

What is this machine? Is it a vacuum, cleaning supplies, or cooking supplies? No, that would be sexist. Is it beauty supplies or make-up? No, that would mean the man has assumptions about beauty standards for women. Is it a trendy diet plan? No, that would mean the man has twisted biases about how women’s bodies should look.

The machine is a stationary bike. What could be wrong with this? Days after the now infamous Peloton advertisement aired, audiences were not impressed.

First of all, they wondered, who is the target audience for this ad? In The New York Times article, “Peloton Ad Is Criticized as Sexist and Dystopian,” Aimee Oritz writes, “A Peloton bike retails for $2,245, and membership for the company’s signature interactive classes costs $39 a month.” Is the average American consumer expected to have the money and space for this bike?

Second, viewers felt the gift of a piece of exercise equipment from a husband to his wife implies that she needs to get in shape. Given that the actress in the commercial already appears very thin and fit, is this an unrealistic (and possibly sexist) attitude?

Finally, viewers wondered why this woman would be nervous about an exercise regimen if she already appeared to be fit. “Before her first ride her face, many suggested, screamed fear,” Oritz wrote.

Monica Ruiz, the actress in the commercial, responded to this uproar by blaming herself: “My eyebrows looked worried… people thought I was scared.” So now the woman’s fearful face is part of the equation suggesting her compliance with a dominant masculine figure.

However, just because she appears to be lean and fit does not mean that she enjoys exercising. Here we see our own biases coming out about why individuals have certain body types. Unfortunately, Peloton does nothing to minimize these biases.

The controversy deepened when Ryan Reynold’s Aviation Gin hired Ruiz to be in a parody of the commercial. She is surrounded by her friends telling her she is “safe” as she downs a class of gin.

It is hard to tell if this response lightened the mood or made people question Peloton’s motives even further. I think it was beneficial to Peloton to bring some humor to their situation and allow Ruiz to, in a sense, redeem herself from the previous situation. But it still doesn’t address the problems people saw in the ad.

If someone has thin privilege, economic privilege, and racial privilege, is it easier for them to brush off a commercial like this? And does the controversy provide a platform to stand up for those who are not part of these privileged categories? Whose voices are important in enforcing change? We will get into this answer in a bit.

In an Inc. article titled, “Peloton’s Latest Ad Was Bad, But Their Response to the Criticism Was Far Worse,” Jason Aten writes that the company has developed “a reputation as being a bit tone-deaf in its advertising, which causes a disconnect with most of us who don't live in ultra-expensive homes with a stationary bike smack in the middle of our living room.”

Are people reading too deep into this commercial? If roles reversed and the woman gave the man a bike, would there be any controversy? What if Peloton just wanted to show that women can work and be active while having a family, and just didn’t have the right people to properly execute the advertisement?

In my opinion, much of the controversy surrounding this ad comes down to how brands and advertising agencies need to work together to be socially responsible. Peloton’s values could be great, but how they execute their values could destroy how their brand is viewed.

Brands use tailored marketing tactics to attract specific individuals with a specific lifestyle. But does specificity really drive a strong brand, or does diversity drive a strong brand? Peloton attracts a very small group of people and leaves the rest of us in disagreement.

Peloton’s response to the public was: “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." Is this a responsible way to respond?

In my first quarter in the Advertising and Brand Responsibility Master’s program, I learned that brand responsibility can be defined this way: For brands to be socially responsible, they should redefine societal standards, be courageous by taking chances and owning up to their mistakes, be grounded by a meaningful purpose while reminding customers of that purpose, and maintain a long-term commitment to changing social standards.

Does Peloton hit any of these? In this ad and in their response, not quite. They do take chances, but they didn’t see the commercial as potentially controversial. Why does that matter? I think the most important thing for a brand is to be a long-term social change catalyst.

What does Peloton do right? They don’t directly imply that the husband wanted his wife to change her body. They avoid all conversation about weight and body image. And they focus on the experience she has with the bike at the end of the advertisement.

Maybe Peloton’s primary goal is to keep people active when they have busy lives and tight schedules. Maybe their goal is to encourage people who are self-conscious about their body or fitness level in a group setting to join a virtual class in the privacy of their living room. Just keeping those small details in mind could change how the brand communicates to people.

To be more responsible and cater to a wider variety of people, Peloton could inspire more positive reactions by showing diversity, thinking about all sizes of bodies, and acknowledging about how most  people don’t have the money or other resources to afford Peloton. Then maybe the anger will stop spinning. Pun intended.

Carly Reid is a Chiquita banana, sea creature, and ocean lover. She swam for UCLA as an undergrad for four years and now has earned the title of a “swammer.” At UCLA, she studied English with a minor in film and media studies, which sparked her interest in social media, digital media, and communicating cultural trends and ideologies though technology. She is passionate about writing short stories and poems and creating short films with her GoPro camera. She has always been interested in advertising and how people consume advertisements to understand themselves and their role in society. The SOJC’s Advertising and Brand Responsibility Master’s program is a perfect fit for what she hopes to do in the future. She is invested in the social responsibility of brands and advertisements and hopes to be a positive force in changing the way brands and advertisements communicate to the world.