Sunday, December 15, 2019

Is This Peloton Ad Sexist, & Should We Care?


A commercial for the Peloton stationary bike went viral recently based on widespread accusations of sexism. In this post I evaluate the ad, explore the question of its alleged sexism, and (more importantly) assess a much bigger problem illustrated by this flap.

The ad

You can see the ad here (at least for now; Peloton has pulled it down and might go after re-postings of it). On Christmas morning, an affluent man has given his fit, pretty, 30-something wife a gift of a $2,300 exercise bike. She gasps, “A Peloton?” The rest of the ad is the woman vlogging about her rides. She’s visibly anxious at first, telling her smartphone camera, “‘I’m a little nervous, but excited.” Then, “Five days in a row. Are you surprised? I am.” At the end the camera pulls back and she’s just shown the finished video to her husband; it ends with her saying, “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me. Thank you.”

After running for a while, the ad suffered (as detailed here) a widespread backlash across the Internet. The more people forwarded it in disgust, the more of a story it became. Eventually it had amassed a reported 3.7 million views, with 2/3 getting a thumbs-down, before Peloton yanked it. Of course, Peloton defended itself, and naturally a lot of anti-PC people joined the fray. 

Seizing the moment, the movie actor Ryan Reynolds, who is launching his own gin brand, did an ad using the same actress, making fun of the Peloton spot. In the gin ad, this same wife is at a bar with two girlfriends. As the scene opens, the wife just stares blankly ahead of her, for a solid ten seconds, as if pithed. Then she toasts “to new beginnings” (she’s no longer wearing a wedding ring) and aggressively downs an entire gin martini in one go, before enthusiastically accepting another from her friend who says to herself (and us), “It’s gonna be a fun night.” Clearly the wife has changed her mind about this gift and her husband.

Further fanning the flames, the actress went on “The Today Show,” along with Ryan Reynolds, to discuss the two ads. Lots of other mainstream media have weighed in, including the “Financial Times” of London.

So … is the ad sexist?

My initial reaction to the ad was that it’s pretty stupid, anyway. First of all, a $2300 exercise bike, which comes with a $50/month subscription to online spin classes, doesn’t strike me as a very good gift. For this kind of money, you’d have to really want it for yourself—which is itself a big if. I know a ton of cyclists and very few of them are interested in indoor workouts; those who are want to use their own racing bike, on a proper resistance trainer or on rollers, rather than this clunky gym-ass thing with its unisex saddle and corny aero handlebars. To shell out that kind of coin, you’d have to be really committed—but the wife looked surprised to receive it, and a bit apprehensive. I can relate … if my wife bought me a $2300 rowing machine or a fancy yoga mat, I’d have even more trepidation than the Peloton wife (as would my wife upon seeing my Year-of-Dana-Doing-Yoga vlog, which would be more unsettling than “The Blair Witch Project”).

That said, the ad didn’t get my heckles up particularly. The wife might have asked for the Peloton and is only pretending to be surprised to receive it. And as my wife pointed out, she might have played up her trepidation for her vlog, to seem more humble.

Curious about the opinions of other reasonable people, I polled my bike team for input, asking who found it sexist. One pal replied simply, “nope,” and another found it “no more sexist than any other commercial,” citing car ads where the man always drives.

Another of my teammates had this observation: 
Well, I’m not sure if it’s sexist but it’s definitely lame. What I find annoying about it is her fear and trepidation. It’s not like he just gave her a downhill mountain bike or a track bike. She’s going to be riding in her comfy home. Also, having gone through childbirth she knows more about pain than her husband. The fact that the ad makes her seem worried about that really makes her seem diminished, weak and lacking any confidence. Although they don’t show her husband out shredding it up on a bike or doing super ‘manly’ things, you get the impression it’s his role to bring her out of her meek little shell. [If I did my own version of this ad, she’d say] “Hell yeah, I’m going to crush this thing” or “Uh, I actually wanted a gravel bike.”
The “Financial Times” writer had a similar reaction, finding the ad “unintentionally sexist” based on the woman’s statement, “a year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me.” The writer points out, “Not only did her husband know better, it seems, but he was right to push her into becoming more toned.”

Moreover, just like with the clearly sexist Pinarello ad I reviewed awhile back, I cannot help but mourn the lost opportunity here: the ad creators should have reversed the roles. This would lessen the risk of anybody being offended, because fat-shaming is less often aimed at men. (The ad creators rightly identified the fat-shaming risk and made sure this wife was thin even before getting the bike.) In my experience men are more likely to blithely let themselves go, so for a woman to give her husband the bike just makes more sense. Males, who have historically enjoyed the power position and who also seem to think a few extra pounds just makes them cuddly and/or Falstaffian, can be expected to have a sense of humor about being overweight. I think an ad could tastefully play with that. Upon receiving the Peloton the husband could say (a bit too sincerely), “You shouldn’t have,” and then his wife could poke him in the soft belly and say, “Actually, hon ... it’s time.” He could then mount the bike with typical male swagger, only to have his first online spin class kick his ass. From there, his gradual apotheosis into a truly fit person would make a much more satisfying “personal journey” than the original Peloton ad is able to provide.

So why did this ad agency go with the dangerous trope of a guy pressuring his wife to get fitter? It could be unconscious bias. Perhaps the idea of a generous guy, who knows what his wife needs, came naturally to the ad creator, based on habitual, prevailing sexism.

My wife suggests a simpler reason for having the woman receive the gift: maybe the ad creators focused on an attractive woman just to get more people to watch. I asked her, “If the ad starred Chris Hemsworth, wouldn’t you watch?” She replied, “I don’t think that would work … he’s too large, he would dwarf the machine.”

A final note on the sexism question: frankly, I’m more disturbed by the actress’s interview on “The Today Show” than by the ad itself. While an entire creative team failed to detect the tone-deafness of the ad, the actress—as if conditioned by a society that blames women for everything—takes full responsibility for the public reaction. She declares, “Honestly, I think it was just my face. Like, I think it was my fault! My eyebrows looked, like worried, I guess—I don’t know, people were like, ‘She looks scared, she looks worried,’ and I’m like, oh no, my eyebrows, they moved!” The female interviewer immediately responded, “That’s absurd. If your face conveyed the wrong emotion, that’s not your fault. The director should have spotted the problem and re-shot the scene.”

As if! Alas, what actually happened was that the interviewer said, “I guess a lot of people have Botox and stuff and their eyebrows stay straight.” (She really said this—look for yourself.) Cripes, where is the support for this put-upon actress who was just doing her job as best she could? Where is the sanity? Oh no, a commercial offended people—must have been the actress’s eyebrows! Let’s prescribe a toxic drug to fix that! Not that I’m asking for the “Today” spot to go viral and launch a massive outcry. I think we’ve all suffered enough.

Should we even care about this ad?

Okay, time to back up and consider: is it even worthwhile to worry about any of this, when more than 3 billion people worldwide live on less than $2.50 a day? Well, it can be. To ponder anything deeply, on a legitimate intellectual level, has intrinsic value, so as long as we’re looking at a larger question (e.g., what sexism is and how it manifests in human behavior), versus trotting out some knee-jerk reaction based on an entrenched worldview we already had. But I take issue with how the reaction was fueled: Americans have been trained to react strongly to specific media moments, to the point that a clumsily-produced ad gets thousands of people attacking each other in the comments section of all the “news” articles celebrating and sensationalizing the supposed scandal.

A few examples of these highly charged comments (below the “Inside Edition” article here): 
  • “Getting your thin wife a weight-loss gift is bad husbanding. No intelligent man would do that. The commercial is cringey and weird. She looks like she’s going to cry in almost every scene and seems so desperate for his approval, like a child or abuse victim. It’s bizarre.”
  • “lol fat shaming serves to put pressure to live a healthy life. America has become overrun with fattys and it has become normalized to the point noone cares anymore. Put down that donut lardass!”
  • “If a woman wanted an exercise bike, she’d buy one for herself. Similarly, if she wanted to lose weight/get fit, she would do so. The idea that she needs to have these things bought for her/introduced into her life, continues the idea of women being economically dependent and/or passive, unable to make decisions for themselves. Similarly, the focus on a woman’s body, having a man re-design it for her, and for her to express gratitude at the end, is a long way from 21st century feminism.”
  • “I hope all the haters don’t buy a Peloton and burn them in protest , PS Trump would hate that”
  • “What’s with women freaking out about nothing all the time. Wtf!”
The vitriol is thick … but of course this is nothing new. So much Internet content is just a launch pad for people to vent about their personal philosophies and disparage those who disagree. I just checked out a article pretty much at random (I selected the first one I stumbled on involving doping) and counted up the journalist’s words versus those of the commenters’. The result? This totally humdrum article about a doping proceeding, “Freeman fails to get tribunal charges dropped,” ran just 423 words, but generated 1,540 words of commentary (so far). A couple of the more inflammatory comments: “Just blame the Aussie. F*CK it seems to fit most narratives around here,” and, “You would think he was friends with the Clinton’s,” and in response, “And why did you leave out Trump’s corruption and lies?” You don’t have to look very hard to find people flying way off the handle, straying ever further from the original content. So it is with this Peloton flap … people are more incensed by the gender roles portrayed in the ad than they (apparently) are by the actress throwing herself on her sword in an actual TV interview that, unlike the ad, is not a work of fiction.

Whether or not the ad was sexist, the fact that it went viral, and that this is such a common effect, starts to lead us toward what I think the larger problem is.

The bigger issue

One of my cycling pals replied to my inquiry email with this comment: “By talking about this you/we have fallen prey to their marketing scheme. They made a somewhat controversial commercial and we’re spending time discussing it. Free publicity.” I don’t quite agree, if we construe “they” to mean Peloton. I don’t believe that the Peloton folks deliberately sought an ad that would get them free publicity by causing controversy. If they had, they wouldn’t have pulled the ad down once the controversy was sparked. Meanwhile, the fact that people are discussing this ad won’t necessarily lead to more people shelling out $2,300 for an exercise bike. Buzz might sell one soft drink versus another, but nobody is going to spend big money on a complicated product they only gained awareness of through a viral reaction to a poorly made ad.

That said, I agree that we’ve fallen prey—but the perpetrator isn’t Peloton, it’s Google, Twitter, and Facebook (and to some degree CNN). Consider what I (reluctantly) put you through earlier:

It’s impossible to follow scandals like this without wading through a lot of ads, and telling Google (and/or your social media sharing platform of choice) a lot about you. They are the real beneficiaries of Internet content going viral, and not surprisingly they’re the ones training us to get outraged, to leave comments, and to forward things along. To extend the virus analogy, they’re the ones who have turned the Internet into a giant Petri dish.

A recent “New Yorker” article profiles Roger McNamee, a former tech investor who now denounces Facebook and Google for “sowing discord among Americans.” McNamee, the article explains, published a number of op-eds in mainstream magazines pointing out that “the social-media business model thrives on divisive rhetoric: the more extreme the content, the more users share it; the more the algorithms amplify it, the more ad revenue is generated.”

Obviously ad revenue for news publishers is nothing new, and I’ve quoted CNN and the “Today Show” in this post. So how does social media fit in? Well, platforms like Twitter and Google make sure everybody sees everything. The Peloton ad ran for three weeks with very little reaction—in the “Today Show” interview the actress says initially her only comments were from friends and family saying “I saw your commercial!” The complaints, when they came weeks later, were all at once, out of nowhere. She hid out for a while, thinking “it’s gonna blow over,” but acknowledges, “it didn’t really blow over as quickly as I thought it would.” Well, making things go viral, and sustaining controversy, are things Google is really good at. (I can’t pick on Facebook because I don’t use it, but their role in our last election speaks for itself.)

I base my accusation on what I witness firsthand on Google. For example, let’s look at how I stumbled onto this whole thing to begin with: Google served up a link to the story, without my asking, when I opened a new browser tab on my Android phone. I didn’t think to capture the original click-bait but here’s one of the follow-up articles Google dangled in front of me:

I wouldn’t have even clicked the link, but after ignoring Google’s unsolicited news feed for months, I was starting to get pissed off and was already contemplating a blog post whining about all the crap Google has been serving me up. Particularly annoying was a bunch of stuff about Chris Cornell, the deceased former front man for Soundgarden. To some degree, I’d asked for this, because I did do a Google search on Cornell. (Noting a strange similarity between his song “Like Suicide” and the poem/novel Pale Fire, I sought to determine if Cornell had read Nabokov.)

Ever since that lookup, Google has offered me a drip feed, through my phone browser, of some ongoing soap opera about Cornell’s death, mostly just gossip that has nothing to do with my interest in Soundgarden music. Look at this crap:

Note also that article about some protest of bubble tea … what did I do to be presented with that? I’ve also seen a bunch of headlines about some spat between Eminem and Nick Cannon, whoever he is. This supposedly neutral delivery platform isn’t just guessing about what content might interest me; it’s trying to serve up anything that might inflame me. I asked my older daughter what’s in her Google feed, and she said mainly FUD-type “articles” sowing college-related anxiety, like “Are you in the right major?”

To come full circle on the Peloton ad: if I’d just seen the commercial, without all the bolted-on outrage and counter-outrage, I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it. I’d have shrugged it off like most stuff, and I think most other viewers would too. But when the Internet dispute engine got a hold of it and spun it up, telling us to weigh in and get indignant, we obeyed. The Peloton company and its products are innocent, even if this ad was hapless. It’s the Internet platforms, and their methods of escalation, aggravation, and amplification, that are turning us into a bunch of indignant scolds.

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