Peloton’s ‘Black Mirror’ Ad Is a Cautionary Tale for Athletic Brands

Peloton’s new television ad is generating the wrong kind of publicity for the brand, which sells premium fitness equipment and streaming workout classes.

The 30-second spot shows a woman coming downstairs on Christmas morning to find her husband has gifted her a Peloton stationary bike (starting price: $2,245). The video cuts to the woman taking a selfie video of her first ride (“I’m a little bit nervous. But excited,” she says, wearing a terrified expression that some Twitter users have compared to that of a hostage or one of the possessed characters in the horror movie “Get Out.”)

That’s followed by a montage of her progress on the bike throughout the year — all shot selfie-style — until the camera pans to a shot of the couple watching the homemade videos on Christmas morning as the woman’s on-screen avatar thanks her husband for the gift. “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me,” she says, again looking more scared than excited.

While the ad debuted almost a month ago, the online ridicule toward it hit fever pitch this week as headlines entreated readers to “please help the woman from Peloton’s awful new ad” and Twitter users slammed it for apparent sexism and body shaming. The woman, many pointed out, appears to be just as thin and model-like at the beginning of her transformation journey as she is at the end. Further, they said, the frightened looks she gives throughout the spot make it seem like she’s only using the bike to please her partner — and give the commercial a dystopian quality not unlike an episode of “Black Mirror.”

On Tuesday, Peloton’s stock dropped 9.1%, which some analysts tied to the negative publicity about the ad. A company spokesperson addressed the backlash in a statement to CNBC Wednesday, saying it is “disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial.”

“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,” read the statement. “Our holiday spot was created to celebrate that fitness and wellness journey.”

Still, the controversy highlights the thin line brands must walk in marketing fitness products as holiday gifts. If there’s any question of whether the recipient absolutely wants the product, the criticism suggests, the gift may be construed not as a thoughtful token, but as an underhanded way of suggesting they need to lose weight, or at least work out more.

It also shows that audiences are also paying attention to the faces — and bodies — companies choose to represent their brands in ads, and won’t hesitate to call it out on social media if they see anyone falling short in terms of diversity and representation. While athletic brands have improved in this area in recent years — with Nike, Athleta, Outdoor Voices and others increasingly casting curvy and racially-diverse models in their campaigns — the industry still lags behind some of its peers in this regard, and, as Peloton’s situation illustrates, mistakes can prove costly.

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