Hindsight makes it easy to say that Peloton should have predicted that their recent holiday ad would ignite backlash, burn profits, and leave their brand a bit singed. It seems obvious that the ad’s story about a husband gifting his thin, beautiful wife an exercise bike for Christmas would press hot-button issues around gender roles and body image. After viral parody videos, a Twitter storm, and even punchlines on SNL, everyone is sitting back and looking at Peloton in disbelief. How could Peloton not have known that they were playing with matches?
Take heed, for this is not a story about tone deaf mistakes, but a cautionary tale for all brand caretakers. Without the benefit of hindsight, there is a lot of pressure in the fact that only you can prevent a firestorm. Practicing these fire safety guidelines might be the only thing between your brand and the flame.
Fire Safety Rule #1: Always look for smoke signals
At Ameritest, we were curious to see if pre-testing Peloton’s holiday ad could have prevented their firestorm. We needed a way to travel back in time and approximate what testing might have looked like before the controversy. So we tested the ad among those who were aware of the controversy and those who were unaware of the controversy.
As to be expected, the ad did not fare well among those who were aware of the controversy. This group strongly disliked the ad and 1 in 5 viewers actually felt worse about Peloton after watching it. The firestorm definitely created a context that diminished ad performance and ultimately damaged the brand.
But those untouched by the firestorm told a different story. The ad performed quite well among those who were unaware of the controversy. This group strongly liked the ad and thought it was highly relatable. Most of them felt better about Peloton and 8 in 10 were motivated to purchase the bike. If Peloton had pre-tested this ad and received these results, surely they would have celebrated. And the celebration likely would have overshadowed the minimal negativity hiding in the details.
One of the few smoke signals among the unaware group was found in an open-ended comment. One woman said:
“I felt sad and disappointed that the ad focused on how a woman’s body needs to please a man. What message is that sending to women and girls that they should only be valued for how their body looks? I would rather see ads that focus on the importance of healthy exercise […] I would never buy something from a company with such a disgusting ad that views women in the way that was just depicted.”
While this is just one comment, it only takes one spark to start a fire. So, it is crucial to listen to the minority for valid issues and evaluate if there is something that can be shifted in the ad’s story to mitigate controversy.
For example, small changes like clarifying the motivation for the husband’s gift to his wife, or showing both the husband and wife using the bike might have prevented some of the gender role controversy. Additionally, clarifying that the wife’s transformation journey was not about weight loss might have prevented some of the body image controversy.
Fire Safety Rule #2: Get to know the neighbors
In a fireproof world, advertisers’ perfectly tailored ads would only be seen by their perfectly selected audiences. But in the real world, every audience has neighbors who inevitably see ads that were not designed for them.
Thus, we tested Peloton’s holiday ad among the intended Fitness Enthusiast audience and among a broader sample who were likely to see the ad, but were not the main target. Even before seeing the ad, the broader audience had significantly fewer positive feelings toward the Peloton brand compared to the target audience, resulting in a significantly more negative interpretation of the ad. This teaches us that the wider the media distribution, the higher the risk of negative reactions from those on the periphery.
“As your risk increases, having validated ways to measure ad performance across audiences becomes more important.”
The simplest method for predicting how an audience (and their neighbors) will react to an ad is to conduct pre-testing. Much like utilizing an editor, pre-testing identifies the mistakes that are difficult to see on your own. Pre-testing can predict the ad’s ability to capture attention in-market, to build brand perceptions, and to motivate viewers to purchase the product. This kind of foresight can allow you to put out fires before any sparks have a chance to fly.
Fire Safety Rule #3: Stop, drop, and then place in-market
Do not mistake this rule’s simplicity for expendability. Rule #3 is an intentional exercise for putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to see the world from their perspective. Then, making appropriate adjustments out of respect for others.
Stop and think about your ad through the eyes of the people represented and not represented in its story. Given the nature of firestorms, stop and think about your ad through the lens of current hot-button issues. Simply taking the time to re-watch your ad through these lenses can help open your eyes to potential hotspots that need to be addressed prior to in-market placement. Dropping controversial ad elements may include small changes or complete overhauls, but will be beneficial to everyone involved.
There seems to always be one brand or another caught up in a firestorm, and Peloton simply serves as the latest reminder to proceed with caution. It’s true that practicing fire safety guidelines requires time and effort, but your diligence will be rewarded and your brand will stay safe and sound.
Watch the Peloton ad here.
By Carolyn Stewart
As brands continue to deal with all the changes to how they communicate with an increasingly nomadic customer, their challenges have not escaped the notice of their research partners.