Peloton: Problem or Pretext?

hero image

Even if you haven’t seen it, there’s a very good chance you’ve read about it. I’m referring, of course, to the now-infamous Peloton commercial.

In the ad, a man surprises his wife with a Peloton stationary bike for Christmas. The woman is elated and starts chronicling her fitness journey with daily cell-phone videos. At the end of the year, the couple sits down to watch the woman’s compilation video, in which she tearfully expresses, “I didn’t realize how much this would change me. Thank you.”

I have seen this commercial many times and I found it to be dumb but harmless. My issue with it was simply that it’s an exercycle. In my gym days, I was not above taking the occasional vanity video of myself lifting a heavy weight but it did not then and it does not now occur to me to video myself on an exercycle because… well, because it’s an exercycle. There’s just not a lot to see there.

But where I found the commercial to be silly, others saw it as insidious. Consider this alternative take: In a display of misogyny worthy of The Handmaid’s Tale, a passive-aggressive husband gives his already-skinny wife an expensive piece of exercise equipment, sending the message that she’s out of shape and therefore unacceptable. This sends the poor wife on what one Twitter user called “a 116-lb. woman’s yearlong journey to become a 112-lb. woman.”

The outcry on social media was often humorous but also merciless. Another Twitter user announced that they were running for president “on the single-issue platform to jail everyone involved in the pitching, scripting, acting, shooting and approval of the Peloton ad.” Even as hyperbole, that seems a bit of an overreaction.

Naturally, there was backlash. Peloton stock dropped 10% in the immediate aftermath of the flap. The company also told CNBC in a statement that the ad was intended “to celebrate that fitness and wellness journey” and that they were “disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial.”

Consider also the impact on the actors in the commercial. Monica Ruiz, who portrays the recipient of the exercycle, actually picked up work from the ad but the nature of the work is telling. In her follow-up ad for Aviation Gin, a clearly shellshocked Ruiz is taken for drinks by her friends. Assured that she’s in a safe place, the erstwhile Peloton wife guzzles down drinks in an attempt to self-medicate in the aftermath of her trauma.

Ruiz’ costar – who appears in a tiny fraction of the commercial – bears the stigma of being painted as her oppressor. Sean Hunter, an elementary school teacher and aspiring actor who portrays the Peloton husband, fears that the commercial may spell the end of both of his careers. Hunter told Psychology Today that the commercial was initially well-received but that people started backpedaling once the Twitter storm hit.

“People turned down a pretty dark path and it turned into a nasty thing,” he told Good Morning America. “My image is being associated with sexism, with the patriarchy, with abuse…that’s not who I am.”

But is all this truly deserved? Consider the nature of the media coverage. The reports are not so much about the ad itself as they are about the snarky things that people are saying about it on social media. As someone who reviews books, I learned long ago that one occasionally has to suppress clever things that one has come up with if they’re not really fair to the author. Writing a review is about critiquing a work, not about demonstrating one’s own wit. The same should be true of what we say online.

So are all these people truly so outraged over a dumb-but-harmless commercial or are many of them just complaining because they can? I suspect that at least some people, like those who backpedaled on their favorable opinions and jumped on the Peloton-bashing bandwagon, are using faux outrage (fauxtrage?) as a pretext. If that’s the case, it’s unfair to Ruiz, to Hunter, to Peloton shareholders, and to many others.

The Biblical archetype for pretext-seekers can be found in parshas Behaaloscha (Numbers 11:1), in which we are told that the people were “like complainers.” Rashi there cites a verse from Judges (14:4) to illustrate that the word used for complaining actually means to seek a pretext. He then cites the Sifre that their entire intention was to provoke God.

The verse in question is typically translated along the lines of, “The people were like complainers, and it was evil in God’s ears.” The Abarbanel understands the verse somewhat differently; he renders it, “The people sought pretexts to prove that God’s hearing was bad.” (“Hearing” refers not just to God being aware of things but also to responding to them.) In other words, the complainers wanted to demonstrate that God doesn’t really pay attention to us. But their plan backfired because, as the verse continues, “God heard and His wrath was kindled.”

There are certainly injustices in this world and they absolutely should be called out, but is this commercial truly a sign of oppression? People complain that the commercial is tone-deaf but I think that, when complaining about it, some people are being willfully ignorant. Consider: the wife in the commercial, upon receiving her gift, squeals with delight and exclaims, “A Peloton!” She doesn’t glare at her husband and question, “A Peloton? Really?” She’s ecstatic with the gift and, one can intuit, probably expressed no small degree of interest in receiving one. Additionally – and this may come as a surprise to some – thin people exercise, too. Fitness is not limited to weight loss.

Some may feel that acting disingenuously serves the higher cause of calling out a ubiquitous injustice even when something is not itself truly problematic; that’s still wrong. Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, the Jewish Ethicist, writes that such pretexting should be avoided because any kind of untruth is repugnant. As an example, he cites a story from tractate Yevamos (63a). Due to some marital strife, Rav’s wife would always do the opposite of what he requested. In an attempt to restore harmony, their son Chiya started to relay the inverse of his father’s requests so that his mother would do what Rav actually wanted. When Rav learned of this, he instructed his son to discontinue the practice as it accustoms one to fudging the truth.

There are lots of injustices in the world that we can and should fight but not everything is symptomatic of a sinister agenda. If you honestly believe that something is unjust or perpetuates hurtful stereotypes, then by all means call it out. But if something is merely harmless-but-dumb, don’t use it as a pretext to demonstrate an injustice that it doesn’t genuinely illustrate. That hurts innocent people and, ultimately, ourselves. When Rav chastised his son Chiya, he cited Jeremiah 9:4: “They deceive their neighbors and don’t speak the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies….” That’s not a good trait to cultivate in ourselves even in the pursuit of lofty goals.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.