Casting and directorial decisions aside, it’s not difficult to imagine that a genuinely doting husband might buy his wife an expensive exercise bike for Christmas, or that an affluent mom might ask for one, or that someone trying to get out of a personal rut might feel nervous that they’ll fail. Before-and-after photos of newly thin bodies have long been an element of fitness marketing, and now Peloton wants to make the case for a before-and-after of the soul. As it turns out, that is a little tougher to telegraph.
Earlier this year, I spent six months pedaling after a question that a lot of people have about Peloton: Why would anyone become emotionally devoted to an expensive exercise bike? The answers turned out to be fairly simple: The bike was convenient. Yes, they all admitted, it was expensive (in addition to the bike, a monthly subscription to classes is $40), but fancy gym memberships easily top $100 a month, and boutique fitness classes are usually $25 to $45 each. Peloton devotees told me they felt good about being active. Online communities of Peloton riders support one another and often provide real opportunities for people to make friends. And the company’s instructors generally don’t use weight as a tool of shame-motivation, unlike many fitness brands.
Read: I joined a stationary-biker gang
The emotional journey clumsily depicted in the new ad isn’t unlike the stories actual users told me, about how they were afraid to exercise but found themselves spurred forward by documenting and sharing their efforts. In a sedentary, lonely country where wide swaths of the population lack accessible or safe outdoor areas to exercise or much free time to devote to fitness, products that address those problems are going to find customers—even if they’re expensive.
I wasn’t the only person surprised by the simple reasons for Peloton’s popularity. The brand, too, seems to have initially misjudged what its own appeal might be, and the controversial ad appears to be part of a larger effort to walk back some of its early messaging. The company’s first ads, which have been widely mocked in their own right, featured young, confident, clearly affluent people working out their already toned bodies while gazing out the windows of their multimillion-dollar homes. After a few years, however, it became clear to the company that many of its bikes were going into the basements and guest bedrooms of middle-class American homes, used by regular people who lead regular lives.
As a result, Peloton has tried to pivot to something more wholesome than the pursuit of peak fitness. The company introduced financing plans, dropped the price of its digital-only subscription, and added bigger sizes to its line of branded merchandise. It started running ads that showed the bikes in more types of homes. Now it’s trying to figure out the same thing as a million other wellness brands: how to talk about exercise and well-being without emphasizing ideals of physical perfection that feel outdated to a lot of potential customers.