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Peloton's holiday ad made some onlookers cringe, but it won't hurt the brand

Key Points
  • A holiday ad from Peloton portrays a woman whose husband gave her a stationary bike for Christmas.
  • Peloton's advertising has been the subject of jokes or criticism for seeming to cater to the very wealthy.
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Peloton's latest holiday ad causes online controversy

Peloton, the maker of high-end at-home fitness equipment, is getting criticized for a new holiday ad that implores viewers to "give the gift of Peloton." But the flap probably won't hurt the company, despite some onlookers complaining about what they saw as undertones of sexism and classism in the ad.

Indeed, Peloton's stock rose 4.6% on the Monday after the Thanksgiving weekend, when much of the criticism surfaced, and is up more than 25% since the stock's September debut.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Peloton's stock was down more than 9% amid a broader stock slump Tuesday. But Raymond James analysts in a note Tuesday said despite the ad's negative feedback, they don't believe this "does much to affect holiday sales." They noted that "Peloton has been a meme in the past and it has not hurt trends," but that the brand might rethink its strategy "given the frequency in which its ads are parodied on social media."

In the ad, a woman receives a Peloton as a Christmas gift from her husband, then documents her usage of the bike, which costs $2,245 with a monthly $39 membership fee to access classes. The woman in the ad remarks she didn't realize "how much this would change [her]."

According to iSpot.tv, the ad first ran Nov. 4 and has run more than 6,800 times, accounting for an estimated $13.5 million in TV spending. The ad has 15- and 30-second versions running across networks including Fox, NBC and ESPN 2.

On social media, some commented that the woman's "before" and "after" looks were identical, or remarked that it was strange that a spouse seemed to be pressuring his partner with the gift to lose weight.

Some commented on how nervous and unhappy the woman seemed to be while documenting her workouts.

Others said the ad was just too over-the-top aspirational given the setting of the home.

About two years ago, the company said it intended to shift its branding from targeting an affluent audience to include a wider range of consumers who might be willing to splurge, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017. But the company was mocked earlier in the year in a viral tweet thread that poked fun at some of its ads, which showed Peloton's cycles in what appeared to be outrageously expensive homes.

Peloton declined to make anyone available for an interview or provide a comment. Advertising agency Mekanism, which has worked with Peloton in the past, had another spot with the "Give the Gift of Peloton" tagline on its website, but didn't respond to a request for comment on whether it worked on this particular spot.

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Peloton CEO John Foley on the company's growth and profitability

A die-hard fan base

Love their ads or hate them, Peloton has built a die-hard fan base.

"It's hard to overstate the power of the Peloton brand," said Tim Calkins, a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Calkins said a brand like GoPro, which primarily positioned itself as being for "big adventurers," had a hard time appealing to people who didn't feel they fit that mold.

"A lot of brands struggle with, how do you be both aspirational and relatable?" he said. "Clearly here they're shooting for the aspirational."

Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient and co-founder of #SeeHer, a movement led by the Association of National Advertisers to accurately portray women in media, said those commenting on the weight of the woman isn't the way to think about it.

"It's just about being healthy. I think that we need to not go overboard with micro sensitivity in just assuming because a man gives a woman an exercise bike, that insinuates it's to lose weight," she said.

But Zalis did see room for improvement in the ad's portrayal of the woman. For instance, the woman saying "I'm a little nervous, but excited" before riding the cycle. Zalis said the nervous portrayal could perpetuate a stereotype of women not believing in themselves or lacking confidence.

Another area for improvement Zalis saw was when the woman turned to her husband as if for validation.

"It was just a moment where we could have had her exert her self-confidence and her independence — versus turning to him for validation," she said.

At any rate, the ad has certainly gotten people talking about Peloton, which can be one mark of a successful ad.


Disclosure: CNBC parent Comcast-NBCUniversal is an investor in Peloton.