It’s been nearly a month since Suzanne Zuppello abandoned the “spiritual gangster” lifestyle.
The moniker is worn across one’s chest, in the form of SoulCycle attire. It captures the aspiration of the brand: stationary bicycling for the free-spirited, purpose-driven, and strong-willed. Promising “more than a workout,” it is not your mother’s spinning class (even if it literally is).
After years of spinning, Zuppello’s local studio on Long Island has faded to a metaphorical blip in the rearview mirror of her actual bicycle. “I bike all over, and it’s far cheaper than SoulCycle,” she says. “And no one keeps my money if I decide last-minute to skip my ride.”
Last month, Zuppello joined a throng of SoulCycle devotees around the country in renouncing her affiliation with the existential cyclery. On August 8, The Washington Post reported that one of SoulCycle’s owners, the billionaire Stephen Ross, would host a fundraiser lunch to support Donald Trump. For $250,000, attendees could buy an audience with the president at Ross’s Southampton estate.
In response, celebrities like Billy Eichner and Chrissy Teigen led calls for boycotts of SoulCycle and Equinox, the high-end gym also owned by Ross’s company. Even people typically disinclined to speak out on issues they consider “political” felt that Ross’s move had forced a choosing of sides. SoulCycle took on the weight of Trump’s bigotry and intolerance, as well as his inaction on issues of climate change, gun violence, and health care.
Ross later clarified that he supports many liberal causes, including “public education and environmental sustainability.” But even though he and Trump“strongly disagree on many issues,” Ross contended that he wanted to raise money to support the president because both of them are businessmen who care about “creating jobs.” (Given that unemployment rates are at recent-historic lows, this could also be taken to mean that Ross cares about corporate tax cuts and decreased regulatory scrutiny.)
Ross’s justification placated some angry cyclists. Others remained upset, but not enough to quit. I put out an open call on Twitter for people who opposed SoulCycle’s association with Trump to share their reasoning for sticking with the company. A cyclist in Philadelphia explained allegiances to particular instructors. Another in Los Angeles told me she had not ranted about the fundraiser online, but she also didn’t feel guilt-free about continuing to attend classes she had already purchased.
Scholars who weighed in on the economic implications of unhappy customers for SoulCycle predicted that this sort of sentiment was common—genuinely caring, but not enough to take action—and that the boycott would not last. The day after the news broke, the Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer predicted in Yahoo Lifestyle that executives would have “a terrible week,” but that the situation would not “do any long-term damage to the company.” Paul Koku, a business professor at Florida Atlantic University, similarly told the publication, “I don’t think it will amount to much.”
Other skeptics accused the angry masses of “slacktivism” and “virtue signaling,” suggesting that posting on social media can actually decrease a person’s likelihood to take action. Making an enlightened statement gives a hit of dopamine that eases a person’s inflamed sense of justice, and then that person simply moves on to the next issue in their feed.
The actual attendance numbers at SoulCycle classes, however, paint a different picture. It seems that many SoulCycle attendees have indeed stayed away—even after the news faded.
SoulCycle’s attendance numbers were recently reviewed by Earnest Research, a data-analytics agency that tracks consumer behavior. SoulCycle’s website makes the sign-up data for every class publicly available, and each class is scheduled individually and purchased either individually or in small packages—there is no option for a monthly or annual membership—so sign-up data can be followed in real time. (In the case of Equinox and other gyms that offer longer-term membership plans complete with early termination fees, any effect would be expected to lag.)
Earnest compared sign-ups at locations across the United States over a period of 18 days before and 18 days after the fundraiser news. During that time, the average decline in sign-ups was 12.8 percent.
“We looked at historic data, and there was no other dip like this,” says Ried Niziak, a data scientist with Earnest. “I’m very confident that the boycott has driven down attendance at SoulCycle.” Eudora Erickson, another data analyst at the company, concurred.
August does tend to be a slow month for all gyms. Many people are on vacation, and early summer “beach body” aspirations have faded to resigned indifference. The same period last year saw a 5 percent slowdown, so the exact degree of the effect is difficult to discern. But Earnest found that no other period has seen a plunge in class sign-ups as deep as the past month’s. Niziak noted that SoulCycle offered fewer classes over Labor Day weekend this year than it has in past years. “They wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing unless there was a change in the market,” he says.
SoulCycle declined to comment on the accuracy of the data, or on how the boycott is or is not affecting the company. After the news broke, SoulCycle’s CEO, Melanie Whelan, sent a company-wide email inviting every instructor in the country to teach a class where all proceeds would go to “social justice causes.” The instructors got to pick the benefactor—“whatever cause is true in their heart.”
I ran Earnest Research’s data by the professors who had initially predicted that the calls for boycott would have little impact. Schweitzer wrote back that the drop was “larger than we would typically expect.” Paul Koku said the numbers are “impressively high” and “very compelling.”
“This is quite significant,” says Brayden King, a professor of management at Northwestern University who studies consumer activism. “It’s surprising because we have very little evidence that when boycotts are announced they lead to behavioral change. Normally what we see is a lot of media coverage but there’s not a lot of evidence of changing behaviors, even when people say they support the boycott.”
In experiments, King’s research team has found that behavioral change is much more likely if people feel like their peers are watching to see if they follow through. “When it comes to marches and rallies, for example, ideology alone is usually not sufficient to get somebody to show up,” King says. “They need social support and social pressure.”
Pressure to actually change behaviors might inadvertently be created by companies like SoulCycle, though. Selling adherents on the idea of a whole virtuous identity—not simply a consumable product—encourages consumers to behave more like part of the organization, caught up in a quasi-spiritual mission of self improvement. The strategy ropes in devoted followers, but it also courts accountability. As King explains, “The company has created a sort of existential threat by its leader taking a political position that goes against the members’ sense of self.”
This poses a challenge to the many brands attempting to have it both ways, promising all and standing for little. The ethos is common wherever Instagram-savvy start-ups appeal to Millennial ennui. To win over and retain customers, companies beg people to “connect” with them on social media. They ask the customer to weave the brand into his or her digital identity. In doing so, these corporations forfeit the luxury of the traditional facade that “business is business.” They cannot feign indifference on issues that are fundamental to the consumer’s soul.
“It may be that what we’re seeing here is [that] social media has created an ecosystem in which people are observing and judging each other,” says King, positing what would essentially turn the slacktivist narrative on its head. Even if few people are now posting about the protest itself, they still might not be receptive to a friend posting a picture in her SoulCycle cutoff hoodie, or doing an Instagram story after a workout. These things that were once status perks for consumers are now lost.
Nevertheless, Schweitzer and Koku maintained some skepticism that SoulCycle’s business will be hurt in the long term. Social-media storms pass quickly. “For Americans upset by Trump’s actions, each news cycle seems to bring a new issue to the fore: the gun-control legislation flip, accusations of disloyal Jews, Greenland, etc.,” says Schweitzer. Plus, he notes, there’s “an enormous amount of literature that points to the difficulty of making lasting changes.”
Koku believes that posting about an issue will never be as effective as getting in people’s faces. “They think they can just rely on one medium—posting on the internet and that’s it. No! That will not be sufficient. You have to give people sufficient reason to break their habits.”
In economic terms, people will buy and consume things they believe are bad or wrong up until the guilt and shame are severe enough to make an alternative product actually preferable. The appeal of Peloton or Flywheel, competitors in the trendy cycling space, for example, is enhanced by their absence of any clear association with nationalist demagoguery. At least temporarily.
The science of effective boycotting, Koku reminds me, says people need constant reminders. “If I were organizing this boycott, I would have people standing outside of gyms with signs saying, ‘This is what SoulCycle does, and this is why you should stay away,’” Koku says. “If they do go inside the building, they need to be on the machines thinking, This is something I shouldn’t be doing.”
Social media might be doing this. Pressure from the platforms at least has people thinking, This is something I shouldn’t be posting. A change in desire to post about a high-status product has consequences. The value of a status symbol plummets when people decide to reconsider how they ascribe status. Maybe it takes a journey on a stationary bike to realize the spiritual gangster was inside you all along.
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