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The Peloton Holiday Ad Controversy Shows What Brands Are Up Against

December 5, 2019, 1:01 PM UTC

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Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Education Secretary Betsy DeVos thinks someone else should handle federal student loans, hashtags like #MeToo can lead readers to doubt news coverage, and a Peloton ad dabbles in gender stereotypes. Have a terrific Thursday.

EVERYONE'S TALKING

- What's Peloton peddling? At first watch, I thought I’d maybe landed on the wrong Peloton ad. I was looking for the one causing ALL the outrage; the one being trashed online for its “sexist,” “perplexing,” and “body-shaming” effects. But I had, in fact, found the right one.

The 30-second spot shows a husband surprising his wife with a Peloton bike for Christmas. She immediately starts a vlog—fitness-influencer style—about her experience with the stationary bike, saying in her first video that she’s “nervous” to try it. In another clip, she says she’s used it five days in a row: "Are you surprised? I am!” The commercial culminates with her and her husband watching her vlog on their big screen—as couples do!—and her reflecting on the gift: “I didn’t realize how much this would change me!”

To be honest, this didn’t register all that high on my outrage meter, which—I’ll admit—has been recalibrated in recent years. It struck me as silly and unrealistic, if anything. But the fierce criticism of the ad points to the new standards brands are up against, as more consumers demand traits like authenticity and inclusiveness from the products they buy.

The ad does, indeed, tick a lot of ‘tone deaf’ boxes. Some interpreted the gift to the ‘Peloton Wife,’ as she’s been dubbed, as body-shaming by her husband. Then there’s the surprise she expresses—she didn’t ask for the bike; her husband decided she needed it, which gives the ad a gendered, controlling-spouse vibe. That’s exacerbated by her prisoner-in-my-own-home expression throughout the spot, as if she’s pedaling in place against her will. Finally, we have the message that viewers need a $2,000 indoor bike—plus a $40 monthly subscription—to change their lives. To be fair, that’s what consumerism is all about, though brands usually try to find a more subtle way to say it.

Peloton, for its part, is standing by the commercial. “While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial, we are encouraged by—and grateful for—the outpouring of support we’ve received from those who understand what we were trying to communicate,” it said in a statement. (Investors, it seems, were swayed a bit more by the criticism as shares slipped amid the immediate backlash.)

It is a bit dumbfounding that Peloton—a viral, disruptive player in the tech and fitness space—didn’t see this coming. In the current climate, brands are using their advertising to challenge long-fraught stereotypes; in just 30 seconds, Peloton managed to reinforce quite a few of them.

Claire Zillman
@clairezillman
claire.zillman@fortune.com

Today's Broadsheet was produced by Emma Hinchliffe

ALSO IN THE HEADLINES

- Can men have it all? Men increasingly say they want parental leave, but they're less likely than women to actually take it. That's especially true if the time is unpaid, but still applies to paid leave. The New York Times reports that "men are finding it hard to balance career and family in the ways they want." New York Times

- Stars, they're just like us. Professor Anita Elberse lets the Wall Street Journal in on her famous course at Harvard Business School about the business of stardom—one that is taken by both executives and talent, from Lindsey Vonn to the singer Ciara. The athletes and celebrities learn more about what their agents do and how to start another, more business-focused phase of their careers. Wall Street Journal

- Loan offload. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos thinks that federal student loans—a $1.5 billion business—should be spun off from the Education Department into a separate agency. That would make handling the student loans "someone else's problem;" DeVos says student loan financing has become an "untamed beast." New York Times

- Going up. Fortune's Susie Gharib sits down with Judy Marks, CEO of Otis Elevators—now a Fortune 500 company after its spinoff from United Technologies. “Our vision," she says, "is we give people the freedom to connect and thrive in a taller, faster, smarter world"—via elevator. Fortune

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Melissa Miller is out as CEO of Alliance Data after less than six months in the job. Lori Leibovich, former Health EIC, will join theSkimm as SVP of Content. 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

- Mansion arrest. Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou's letter about her experience on house arrest in Vancouver over a fraud charge hasn't gone over well with the Chinese public. Weibo users have been comparing Meng's privileged time confined to a mansion to the 251 days a Huawei employee spent in jail after he demanded severance pay when his contract wasn't renewed. New York Times

- Queen bee. A video of world leaders seemingly making fun of President Trump at the NATO Summit featured one woman among the group: Princess Anne. The daughter of Queen Elizabeth II is having quite the moment. She was also seen on video shrugging as the queen seemed to gesture at her to greet the U.S. president. The usually private royal had already been of public interest in recent weeks thanks to the portrayal of her teen years on Netflix's The Crown. CNN 

- Roger that. The Guardian profiles Kamil Ahmed, who is the only female radio journalist in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. Twenty-year-old Ahmed broadcasts to the 200,000 people who live in Dadaab, which opened in 1991; its expected closure was announced three years ago, leaving its residents in limbo. Ahmed fled Somalia with her family more than a decade ago and broadcasts about everything from the fate of the complex to the importance of breastfeeding. Guardian 

- Hashtag activism. News organizations sometimes include hashtags like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter on social media when writing about those issues. But according to a small experiment, those hashtags lead readers to perceive topics as less important and view the stories as politically biased. When shown the exact same stories and social media posts without the hashtag, readers didn't have those same concerns. The Conversation 

ON MY RADAR

Researchers make progress toward a monthly birth control pill Time

My wife's enemies are now my enemies, too The Cut

The No Time To Die trailer introduces Lashana Lynch's 007 Bustle

QUOTE

"Imagine you are Serena Williams going to play in Wimbledon, when suddenly you realize that the entry criteria bans moms from taking part in the games."

-Veronika Didusenko, who was crowned as Miss Ukraine but had her title stripped when Miss World organizers found out she was divorced and had a child