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Peloton holiday ad sparks heated debate on social media over body imagery

Peloton holiday commercial sparks criticism
Peloton holiday commercial sparks social media uproar 01:59

It's a tough job to strike the right balance of relatable and aspirational in advertising. The internet seems to think high-end fitness equipment manufacturer Peloton failed to walk that line with a TV ad that shows a woman walking down the stairs of her home, hands over her eyes, to discover that her spouse has given her the gift of a Peloton bicycle for Christmas. 

The woman, whose character's name we learn is Grace, documents her year-long cycling journey through a vlog she presents to her spouse as a way of saying thank you the following year. "A year ago, I didn't realize how much this would change me," she says into the camera.

The Gift That Gives Back | Peloton Bike Commercial by Peloton on YouTube

Her slim physique, meanwhile, remains unchanged over the course of the ad. 

Social media users quickly criticized Peloton for supposedly peddling negative body images and proliferating unhealthy marital dynamics. At one point in the ad, the woman looks at her husband in a way that suggests she's seeking his approval of her efforts. 

Social media comments seemed to delight in attacking Peloton by parodying the ad. One Twitter user even suggested running for president "on the single issue platform to jail everyone involved in the pitching, scripting, acting, shooting, and approval of the Peloton ad." 

A female character looks at her fictional husband as he watches a video of her cycling journey on the Peloton bike he bought her a year earlier.  You Tube / Peloton

Investors also seemed less than enthralled: Peloton shares tumbled 9% Tuesday amid critical chatter about the ad.

"Look, I don't want to be 'The Peloton Ad Guy' anymore, but the newest commercial about the vlogging 116 lb woman's YEARLONG fitness journey to becoming a 112 lb woman who says 'I didn't realize how much this would change me' is just ri-god-damn-diculous. Come on," said Clue Heywood, who has used his Twitter account to mock the company's branding and advertising in the past. 

Others on Twitter suggested that the man's gift to his spouse implied that he wanted her to lose weight. "Absolutely 100% chance that the husband in the Peloton ad is abusive," Allahpundit tweeted. 

But not everyone saw the ad in the same harsh light.

"There are a lot of micro-sensitivities around stereotyping men, too, and just because he bought his wife a bicycle as a gift doesn't mean it's about weight loss," said Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient and co-founder of the #SeeHer campaign to accurately portray women in media. "There were no references at all to weight loss and it didn't seem like she needed to lose weight. It was about health and wellness."

Other experts also challenged the assumed connection between fitness for the sole purpose of weight loss. 

"The woman at the beginning of the story is in very good shape to begin with. It's not the story of someone who is not fit becoming fit. It's the story of someone who is already fit getting more fit," said Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. 

Casting a heavier model would likely have landed Peloton in even hotter water, according to Calkins. 

At least one Twitter user also defended the company's decision to cast an already fit model, saying that the spot's aim was to promote a healthy lifestyle — not to encourage weight loss.

Still, there are ways in which Peloton's buzziest ad to-date could have been less provocative, marketing experts said. 

"A lot of people are upset partly because the imagery is so upscale and idealized. There's always a delicate balance for a brand between being aspirational and being unrealistic and going too far, and this one is so idealized," Calkins said. 

Another way around the backlash could have been to position the Peloton bike as a gift to oneself — for those who can afford the pricey piece of gym equipment. Peloton's stationary bike retails for $2,245.

"I think there is a very delicate line with a health product like a Peloton and it might be better to think of it as something you do for yourself more than something you do for your spouse," Calkins said. 

It's unclear if Peloton worked with an outside advertising agency or if it produced the TV spot in-house. Peloton did not return a request for comment from CBS News. 

Others were simply unfazed by the ad and it's message, saying it promoted the product in a relatively standard way.

"Unpopular opinion: the Peloton ad is pretty much just a normal commercial for an exercise bike and the collective freak out over it is way weirded and creepier than the ad itself," Matt Walsh tweeted. 

Still, it has the internet abuzz. Spoofs of the commercial have surfaced, including one in which a woman serves her husband divorce papers at the end of her cycling journey. 

It remains to be seen whether or not the ad will have any kind of impact on Peloton's sales throughout the all important holiday season. 

"Peloton's new ad missed the mark, and social commentary (e.g. YouTube reactions, Twitter) is largely negative," said Raymond James analyst Justin Patterson. "However, we do not believe this does much to affect holiday sales." 

Backlash against past advertisements that were critiqued for being aimed exclusively at the wealthy have not hurt the company, according to Raymond James. 

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