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Peloton bike ads are always going to offend people. So why did this one hit a nerve?

There are plenty of reasons to dismiss this particular holiday ad, but the current social media controversy is more about what Peloton's video represents.
Image: Peloton \"The Gift That Gives Back\".
What a gift.Peloton

Can you afford a Peloton bike? The pricey piece of exercise equipment is the namesake of its 2012 Silicon Alley indoor-cycling startup — a company that now has over a million subscribers and a $4 billion valuation. The bike is one of any number of luxury products trotted out during the holidays; ‘tis the season for ridiculous car commercials. But the collective rage sparked by this year’s Peloton ad is a reminder that the socioeconomic divide in this country always feels a little sharper during the glut of end-of-year spending.

The ad originally aired on YouTube on Nov. 21, but stayed mostly under the radar until the beginning of December. Memes, disgust and parodies followed almost immediately.

These critics have a point: The ad is not good. It’s bland and gendered and manages to pack a surprising number of uninspiring choices into its 30-second run time. A beautiful woman receives a surprise Peloton bike from her husband and records videos of herself over the next year charting the bike’s life-changing properties. The commercial ends with the couple watching her montage — her “transformational journey” — together on the couch. Viewers took issue with the potential underlying message of a husband gifting his thin wife something she could use to reinvent herself.

In an ideal world, advertisers would strive to be inclusive. But Peloton appeals to a particular demographic — affluent suburbanites with enough space and income to park a 135-pound stationary bike somewhere in their house — and the ad captured that. Yes, it could have been better. The couple could have embarked on a health-conscious endeavor together. They could have just high-fived at the end. They could have skipped the Tal Bachman soundtrack. The commercial doesn’t reflect the best of what advertising can be, but it does reflect the context of its product.

There has always been plenty to mock, most of all the idea that the biggest hurdle in life is waking up early enough to pedal uninterrupted on a bike going nowhere.

Earlier this year, Twitter user Clue Heywood posted a thread mocking the inaccessibility of the Peloton lifestyle portrayed in its ads — the bikes situated in the middle of expansive, floor-to-ceiling windowed homes, walls hung with midcentury art, taut riders in already enviable shape. There has always been plenty to mock where the Peloton lifestyle is concerned, most of all the idea that the biggest hurdle in life is waking up early enough to pedal uninterrupted on a bike going nowhere.

But the idea of wealthy Americans paying exorbitant sums of money in the name of health isn’t new. Peloton’s rise has coincided with a larger, more pervasive culture of wellness — one overrun with privilege and high-end consumerism. Boutique fitness gyms are everywhere, from Orange Theory and Barry’s Boot Camp to Soul Cycle and Pure Barre. Gwyneth Paltrow, one of the original proprietors of health products the internet loves to hate, is currently offering an annual “wellness junkie’s gift guide” that includes a $70-a-day meal program, a $400 handheld massager and a $2,200 home rowing machine.

Paltrow’s brand is synonymous with privilege, as embodied by its Hollywood founder. A sizable portion of the ridicule over the Peloton ad — “the gift that gives back” — was similarly aimed at the optics: How dare Peloton cast a laughably attractive woman to embody wellness and transformation? In fairness, no body type was particularly right for this role — the ad was too dated in style to produce any kind of fruitful inspiration. Would it have been better if a curvier woman had received the bike? No. It would have simply reinforced the uncomfortable narrative of a man “empowering” his wife to lose weight.

Peloton’s rise has coincided with a larger, more pervasive culture of wellness — one overrun with privilege and high-end consumerism.

The company stayed essentially mum on the backlash until Wednesday afternoon, its social channels a polite mix of thanking users for reaching out with their technical difficulties and quips about what makes a Peloton class so special. Eventually, a company spokesperson released a statement to CNBC, stating that while they “were disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial,” they were also grateful to their existing community. It did not apologize for the ad or for the sexism and classism alleged by critics.

In 2019, the internet is used to getting its way. The social masses hold celebrities and brands and politicians accountable for their actions. In turn, the disgraced party is expected to issue an apology and pledge to do better. Peloton didn’t.

Ultimately, there are plenty of reasons to dismiss this ad, but what seems to be at the heart of the social media furor is what the video actually represents — a reality in which hundreds of thousands of people can afford the exercise bikes even as millions more live paycheck to paycheck.

Peloton opted to stay in its lane. Some people in this world can afford the company's brand of luxury, and most cannot. It’s not fair; it’s also not unique to Peloton.