So what about that Peloton ad?

peloton ad

I’ve had several people ask me what I thought about the internet outrage over the Peloton Christmas ad so I thought I would add my thoughts here.

To bring you up to speed, an ad that has been called among other things “perplexing”, “sexist”, “cringeworthy” and promoting an unhealthy body image has set the internet ablaze.

The holiday ad from Peloton, a maker of internet-connected indoor stationary bikes, is titled “The Gift That Gives Back” and features a woman referred to as Grace in Boston documenting her workouts on the Peloton for her husband, who gifted her a Peloton.

If you can’t see the video, click here: Peloton controversial ad

One critic called the ad “a dystopian hellscape.” From the fact that the woman already looks quite fit to her facial expressions, which suggests that she’s being held against her will, Peloton managed to fit a lot of food for critics into a single 30-second spot. The actor who appears briefly as the “manipulative husband” is even getting a lot of hate mail and he fears the ad has ruined his career.

Aviation gin company rapidly came out with their own ad, a parody of the Peloton disaster — using the same actress. “You’re safe here,” one friend says, before the trio cheers to “new beginnings,” and another friend says, “you look great by the way.”

On the other side, many people just don’t see what the negative buzz is about. They don’t understand the controversy at all. However, if YouTube voters are a reflection of general public sentiment, negative reactions are beating positive by 2-to-1.

The outfall

Despite the widespread mockery, Peloton defended its ad, saying it’s “disappointed in how some have misinterpreted” it. The company also said it also received an “outpouring of support” from people who actually liked it.

Well, Wall Street didn’t like it. Since the ad ran, Peloton’s stock has tanked and lost $1.6 billion in company value. Some analysts expect the ad to be pulled as the backlash grows. The controversy surrounding the ad drew coverage from a wide range of mainstream news and entertainment sites, including NPR, CNN, CBS and People.

My take? The ad never should have run.

Experienced executives testing this ad should have picked up on the feedback or even just known intuitively that something was off with this advertisement. Why would a rail-thin woman become so obsessed with documenting her new fitness regimen to her husband? What about that look that appears like she’s afraid … or sucking on a lemon?

So what happened and how do you avoid this sort of thing happening to you?

First, let’s put something to rest — no, Peloton did not intentionally make a controversial ad to stir up free publicity.

This is a common conspiracy theory every time one of these bad ads gets a lot of press. No CMO is going to agree to a plan that results in their precious brand becoming a laughingstock. Somebody in this equation is going to be fired.

So what happened?

 How did this Peloton ad get approved?

The Peloton ad debacle is just one in a long line of terrible ads in recent months. It makes you scratch your head and wonder how these things get through. After all, these brands are throwing a ton of money and creative talent at these projects.

I’ve asked a number of my friends in the ad industry and one common theme seems to emerge: A toxic agency relationship.

The ad business is in decline. Agencies are laying off like crazy. And these big firms CANNOT AFFORD TO LOSE A CUSTOMER, especially an up-and-coming startup like Peloton.

The consensus opinion from my friends is that Peloton’s agency (Mekanism) probably knew there were problems with the ad — they had to have some feedback from a screening at least — but they feared confronting an enthusiastic customer or disappointing them due to the inherent fear in the business relationship.

The relationship isn’t honest because of a desperation to survive and appease a customer.

Of course there could have been many other explanations, but this debacle is probably a symbol of an ad industry in decline.

What about you?

What are the lessons for you and your own marketing efforts?

The obvious idea is that you need to have a realistic and data-based relationship with your ad agency!

But there is something deeper here.

Let’s face it. There are problems with the ad, but there is also an element of bad luck here.

I would say any organization with a public presence is vulnerable to somebody on the internet finding an awkward moment in a promotion and finding a reason to make fun of it.

On the tenth anniversary of my blog, I commented that my major achievement was that I had never turned myself into a meme … and I am serious about that!

Whether bad design or bad luck, Peloton’s fatal flaw in this whole thing is that they didn’t pull the ad right away and apologize. Even if some people are defending the ad, the company is getting crushed in the marketplace. By failing to react, Peloton is turning a promising brand to mush. The company is becoming a parody. 

Even the people who love the company and love the ad may feel embarrassed to buy the machine if it means being associated with an internet scandal.

Bottom line — When shit happens, react quickly and make it right.

Update Feb. 2020: This article reports that the Peloton ad did not appear to have a negative impact on sales and that it might have been a “win.”

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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