In November, the exercise bike company Peloton released an advertisement that many viewers have derided as sexist and even dystopian. But while some criticisms of the Peloton ad ring true, others miss the message and ignore more pressing health issues.
The Peloton Ad
In the Peloton ad in question, a thin and attractive woman receives a Peloton bike from her husband for Christmas. The woman films herself using the bike over the course of the following year and shares the video with her husband. “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me,” she tells him.
The ad has met with a substantial wave of criticism. Some have called the ad sexist, suggesting the husband gives his wife the bike to encourage her to lose weight. A few of these critics see the ad as showcasing men’s impossible standards for female beauty since the woman doesn’t change physically over the course of the year.
Others have compared the Peloton ad to a horror film or a dystopian future. The Twitter account Limericking wrote, “The Pelaton [sic] wife/Has a beautiful life/And a general aura of fear.” And comedian Jess Dweck tweeted, “The only way to enjoy that Peloton ad is to think of it as the first minute of an episode of Black Mirror” (a television show which examines modern society through futuristic or alternative present scenarios that are often dystopian).
Actor Ryan Reynolds countered Peloton with an advertisement for his Aviation Gin that featured the same actress (Monica Ruiz) as the Peloton ad. It opens with Ruiz’s character sitting catatonically at a bar between two female friends. One friend tells her, “You’re safe here.” Ruiz’s character downs her drink in one gulp, and her friend offers her another. The ad closes with a shot of an Aviation Gin bottle and one friend saying, “You look great, by the way.”
Some of this criticism is valid. The Peloton ad looks problematic if we imagine the husband giving his wife the bike and telling her, “Hey babe, I’d like you to lose some weight so I bought you a Peloton. Get to work.” However, there is no indication we should interpret the husband’s gift that way. The ad never mentions weight or physical appearance. And as the ad’s critics have observed, the woman doesn’t appear to lose weight over the course of the year.
Instead, we see the woman expressing enthusiasm about her first ride, bleary-eyed fatigue at waking up early for a workout, exhausted pleasure at completing a tough ride, and excitement at hearing her instructor mention her by name. If we examine only the images and the woman’s words, the change she references seems to involve the experience of waking up early, challenging herself physically, discovering a community and finding enjoyment in her physical accomplishments. It has nothing to do with physical appearance.
It’s also not clear how the Peloton ad paints a dystopian picture. How does owning a stationary bike lead to a society characterized by great suffering or injustice? Do critics like Dweck imagine a terrifying future in which we are all slogging away like zombies on our Pelotons?
Disney and Dystopia
In early December, I enjoyed a visit to Disney World. As I walked through the parks, I was shocked at how many overweight and obese people I encountered. I suspect (though I can’t know for sure) several of them were using motorized scooters, not because they were physically disabled, but because their size made it difficult for them to walk around the theme parks. So if we’re headed for a dystopia, I think we’re far closer to this one than the mass hypnosis of a Peloton fitness cult:
In the Disney Pixar film WALL-E, humans have abandoned an environmentally rampaged Earth and live on a massive spaceship. There, machines cater to their every need and the humans become lazy, overweight and hypnotized by screens.
A recent study predicts that nearly half of all American adults will be obese by 2030. That’s obese, not just overweight. In light of that prediction and my recent Disney experience, a WALL-E-like world in which most of humanity is overweight, sedentary, glued to a screen and eating mindlessly looks far more likely than one in which we’re all addicted to our exercise bikes.
Health and Appearance
Health and fitness advertisements face a double-edged sword. Even if a promotion seeks to focus on health, exertion, challenge or community, and not on physical appearance, advertising executives rely on attractive people to help sell their products. Yet casting an attractive actor for a fitness ad allows viewers to criticize the ad as shallow.
However, the obesity epidemic is truly about health and not physical appearance. The trend toward a heavier society is worrisome because it affects the well-being of our family and friends, the rising costs of healthcare, and longterm consequences for our children. And still, a promotion like the Peloton ad draws criticism for being sexist, shallow and horrifying.
Where is the same level of outrage at the concession options available at Disney’s Magic Kingdom? Somehow, Disney World’s most child-friendly park is the one with the least healthy food choices. Where is the outrage over the Aviation ad that promotes alcohol abuse over exercise?
I don’t own a Peloton bike and have no plans to buy one. But if that product can help a person make significant improvements to her health, then it is extremely valuable. Yes, the Peloton ad misses the mark. But instead of picking apart a potentially beneficial product, let’s look at our own health and examine the ways other companies come up short in helping us live longer and healthier.
So is the Peloton ad sexist? At the very least, it’s not a great look for the company. Is it a dystopia? Put it this way: if that ad represents the worst of our possible futures, sign me up.