Peloton’s “apology”

Peloton made a controversial holiday ad. Then it dug a deeper hole with a non-apology that blamed people for being offended.

Here’s the ad. What do you think?

What’s the problem here? For one, the woman is hella skinny even at the start of the ad. The implication is that her husband thinks she needs to be better and gets her a piece of exercise equipment. And the fearful look on her face is certainly subject to misinterpretation.

Let me argue both sides here for a minute.

I can see what Peloton was trying to do. To begin with, the main purpose of a piece of exercise equipment like this is to get fit, not to lose weight. It’s perfectly believable that a slender woman would want to do that, and would be excited about this high-tech exerciser. Perhaps she told her husband she wanted it. (I have gotten exercise equipment for my wife, but only because she asked for it, because I’m neither an asshole nor suicidal.) And I can sympathize with the woman’s uncertainty and sense of accomplishment, since an exercise journey is hard to start and hard to maintain.

Even with that all said, this ad is problematic, because she appears to be an insecure woman who’s being manipulated. Maybe, maybe not. But the way this was shot and presented certainly could lead to a negative interpretation. It’s tone deaf. And that’s why Peloton suffered a massive backlash and a 9% drop in its stock price.

Peloton’s response was horrifying

Peloton felt it needed to respond, so it sent statements to news organizations like CNBC. In addition to sharing some positive responses it got from customers, it included this comment:

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. 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

Umm . . . “we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted our commercial?” That’s just insulting. It makes things worse. It blames the viewer. And it’s the opposite of an apology.

There are two possible strategies here, and Peloton chose neither.

One is to actually apologize:

We were surprised by some of the responses to our holiday ad. In retrospect, it’s clear that some people found it sexist and misinterpreted the dynamic between the woman and her husband. We made a poor choice in how we portrayed this dynamic, which was supposed to show an uplifting journey. We apologize for offending people and airing the insensitive ad. In the future, we’ll include a diverse set of women in the group that vets ads here in the hopes of projecting a more positive and inclusive set of messages that are consistent with how Peloton actually feels about its customers.

Another is to vigorously defend yourself:

Although our ad apparently offended lots of people, it reflects our values and we continue to be proud of it. A woman encourages her husband to buy her a Peloton in her journey to fitness. After hard work, she accomplishes her goals. It makes no difference what size and shape the customer is tous — we want to encourage everyone to take charge of their wellness journey and improve. We’ll continue to do all we can to encourage everyone to take charge of their fitness, and we hope you will join us in that.

I think the first is better, but the second would at least have shown some integrity.

But a non-apology about being “disappointed” in its critics just annoys everyone.

Either own who you are or apologize. Don’t end up the muddy middle, because nobody wants to buy an exercise bicycle from a company that can’t get its story straight.

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  1. Great post, Josh. What I have heard from my Peloton-owner friends that I think is even more telling is that one of the best features of owning this product is the Peloton community. It’s made up of a very diverse set of people that comes together and challenges one another to get out of their comfort zone – really, a dream audience for a product like this. Peloton should have tuned into its’ community when it decided to shoot an ad and done something more authentic instead of this to reflect who they really are and I bet there would be such a different response. I am so glad you called out their non apology especially where they blame us for misinterpretation! #turnoff Happy Holidays!

  2. Josh – this has been such a strange fiasco. The coverage and outrage has made it hard to have real discussions.

    I love how you cleave the argument/approach into two very distinct pieces. That “muddy middle” is a death trap, but oh so tempting. It’s surprising that Peloton didn’t take either approach you’ve outlined. After all, they have such a huge fan base, and they could’ve thoroughly embraced either clear cut option.

    Looks like this multi-headed Groundswell bit them in the ass, and choosing to alienate everyone was not a good call.

    Seems like you could split out another book to cover “Crisis Management Without Bullshit” and make a huge difference in the world.

    Nicely done.

  3. For many of us, Peleton’s problem is elitist. Buy a $2,000 piece of exercise equipment, and then pay a monthly subscription to work out?

    1. It seems you use the term “elitist” as a pejorative for “rich people.” I applaud Peleton for not trying to be all things to all people. The company doesn’t need to apologize for developing an ad targeted to its customer base. It’s statement in response to the controversy certainly didn’t help, but I don’t know that it’s terribly damaging. The opinions/reactions from people who aren’t in Peleton’s customer demo probably won’t matter much in the long run, and I’m going to assume that you are in that group (and I am, too, lest you are wondering).

      1. I’m not against rich people. I long to be one. Yes, I can afford Peloton, but I can think of much better ways to spend that money. A trip to Paris, for example. What rankles me is that a company can be so highly evolved, yet live in a bubble. There are people out there who can’t afford a new pair of cross-trainers. I’m not saying Peloton should lower their standards for the masses, and I’m not saying they don’t know their audience. But when your company is peddling (pun kind of intended) its product to the masses, it should check its Jay and Daisy-ness at the door.

    1. Yes, I’m disappointed that Pelaton even felt they needed to apologize. Get over yourselves, everyone. A million eye rolls. So over everyone freaking out over nothing things.

  4. Their spokeswoman made another statement that rankled me–something like, “Clearly this shows that Peleton has become part of the cultural conversation.” So is Trump. So is global warming. What does this prove?

  5. Women are allowed to be skinny just as much as women are allowed to be overweight. Why not assume that she asked for the bike for Christmas instead of assuming that her husband is implying something is physically wrong with his wife? Peleton has nothing to apologize for aside from terrible commercial acting. It might be the right ‘brand move’ to apologize with sincerity, but if the ‘company’ is not sincerely sorry, I appreciate their honesty in the matter. Anyone who suffered great offense from this commercial needs to do some internal investigating. It’s about you- not the commercial.

  6. Bullshit. The serious elite athlete (or aspiring wannabees) is clearly Peleton’s target market, and they likely should have just stayed quiet. Or, they could have noted this openly and are aware they might offend hyper-feminist snow-flakes anxious to be offended by anything that does not portray ever woman on the planet as some super hero — and every man depleted of all traces of testosterone. Their sales would have exploded.

  7. What a load of tosh. Nobody will buy a bike from a company that can’t get their story right….Ha, I don’t give a toss that people don’t like the advert. I want a peloton to get fit other issues don’t affect me, if snowflakes sat on their sails getting fat feel affected then tough shit, be offended I don’t care….

  8. Here’s my take. No one knows the backstory so
    mind your damn business. She could
    have been recovering from an injury after being in Ironman or IronWoman if that sounds better. I’ve been in these situations where people judge what you can’t do before they know why you can’t…find something else to complain about! I would be tickled senseless if my partner bought something that helps my lifestyle..Not yours..

  9. At least the ad gave some late-night talk show hosts a topic for some hilarious riffs on it.

    Good analysis of the response without taking sides. I like the suggestion above about going to their own community for true stories to tell in their ads.

    This ad probably still sold more product than one that truly showed how too many exercise bikes end up – in the corner of the bedroom acting as an expensive clothes rack!

  10. People are missing the point with the outrage of the ad. Spouses can buy exercise equipment for their significant other sans ulterior motive or divorce papers being filed. I know plenty of couples who are fitness nuts and would love the other buying a top-flight piece of fitness gear.

    Her pre-Peloton physique is also a red herring. Look in any gym, there are fit people working out… cause and effect here. No need to slim shame; exercise has benefits beyond weight loss.

    The real problem is the narrative of the thank you video that carries the story of the ad. Why is she thanking him? She did the work, not him. He should be proud of her effort versus her thanking him for being the financial backer.

    The ad would have been 1000% better if it ended with a scene of him recognizing her achievement and maybe even getting on the bike himself with her rooting him on. If that was the ad, no snark or outrage.

    1. Josh, I love your take, as almost always. And Bruce, I really like the point you made, as well.

      Possibly like “sam lover of snow,” I’m much more concerned about the response to this blog post than to the original ad.

      I don’t personally find the ad offensive. But I’m not going to question other people’s response to it. I want to hear from them and understand why they were offended. And if I were the maker of the ad, I would apologize to them, and try to learn from it.

      Josh, I would love to read your take on this particular type of outrage. Person A is offended by something, doesn’t matter what. Person B is offended by the fact that person A is offended. Person C is offended that Person B is offended that Person A is offended. I’m Person C. I cannot stand Person B. LOL. You can see what I want to read your take. I clearly can’t express myself very well.

  11. This feels like Lululemon’s “leggings-gate” all over again. We have to allow brands to tell us what they stand for so that we can make a decision on whether or not to support and/or consume their products. In this case, the people upset should just decide not to buy a Peleton. The people who don’t care for the message should not spend their money with this company. At the same time, we need to be careful not to fan the flames of ‘cancel-culture’ by drawing attention to these things and having major brands apologize for not appealing to the middle. Everyone in marketing would agree that that would be a waste of everyone’s time.

  12. Peloton did not need to apologize. I’m weary of the social media zealots circling like sharks waiting for the slightest hint of metaphorical blood in the water to launch a written feeding frenzy and potentially victimize personal, professional, corporate or political entities. Each of us needs to do a better job pausing at the intersection of writers’ intent and our subsequent interpretation of a writer’s message. After pausing (and I don’t mean 15 seconds people), check your cynicism at the door and write a thoughtful retort fostering productive written exchange instead of blinding vitriol. Also, we need to talk to each other more (does anyone remember conversation?).

    The court of public opinion is getting scarier by the day. All thoughts are not facts though many believe they are.

  13. Josh, thank you for weighing in on this topic. I did not find the ad offensive when I first viewed it; in fact, I thought it was rather uplifting that her husband would gift her this expensive piece of exercise equipment she wanted in order to continue and enhance her fitness journey, which then clearly improves her physical and mental well being. However, after seeing how others interpreted the ad, I can see where there was some concern.

    I think Peleton definitely would’ve benefited by consulting with you before responding about the ad. I don’t think they needed to apologize, but had they written a statement that incorporated any or all of the points you made (exercise is more than just weight loss, they appreciate their diverse customer base, exercise equipment can be a great gift if the recipient wants that, etc. etc.) they could’ve turned this around a little better. Add in something about New Years resolutions and offer a tiny discount and they’d be set.