Stereotypes in Advertising: What Brands Should Learn From That Peloton Ad

Another month, another backlash. This time, indoor fitness bike brand Peloton is under fire for its portrayal of a woman getting fit to please her husband after he offers her a bike for Christmas. This is just the latest in a series of ill-conceived campaigns, with the same problem at their core: they use stereotypical representation, intentionally or not. 

So why do brands keep getting it wrong? And what can we learn from that Peloton ad?

The Peloton Issue

The Peloton advert is different from most stereotypical ads in that it’s the execution of the ad rather than its concept that’s problematic. The concept of the ad itself is far from modern – but there’s nothing wrong, in theory, with a husband offering his wife an exercise bike. Although, one could argue that a man should not interfere in a woman’s decision to exercise. Regardless, the bigger issue with the advert is what comes across as the submissive behaviour of the wife, whose pain-ridden expression makes it seem like she’s exercising under torture. This may come down to the actress’s performance or to the creative direction, or probably a combination of both… we’re not so much interested in who’s responsible, but rather in understanding the mechanisms of social backlash and how brands can avoid being caught in stereotypical representation.

Disproportionate Reaction?

Arguably, the wide reaction to the Peloton advert can seem a little out of proportion – after all, nothing wrong is explicitly said or shown. So does the campaign really deserve such backlash? Or is this just another case of ‘wokeness’ gone mad?

In any case, the Peloton ad shows how little it takes for online communities to rip an advert apart. And rightly so. After decades of stereotypical and racist advertising, it’s only natural that women and minority groups demand a fair representation in advertising. The speed with which scandals erupt is phenomenal and sometimes online communities can seem a little too sensitive, pointing at issues that wouldn’t even occur to the most progressive viewer. The truth is, oversensitivity may be real, but so is discrimination. No matter how disproportionate a group’s reaction may seem, the feeling is borne out of reality and it’s sometimes hard for outsiders to understand why the content of an advert can offend a particular group.

Brands Need to Make it Right

If we go back to the ad itself, rather than it being openly offensive, it leaves the viewer with a feeling of uneasiness. The wife’s eager submissiveness and desire to please her husband seem to be out of date, reminiscent of the 1950s rather than the post #MeToo era. Moreover, although the ad doesn’t explicitly tell women they need to stay fit to attract men, it’s kind of implied. By depicting a woman in a stereotypical manner, intentionally or not, Peloton sends the message to women that they need to conform to the stereotypical, traditional role assigned to them. In the current climate, with women’s rights being questioned more than ever, and feminism growing in influence, it’s no surprise that the Peloton ad would give way to heated reactions. And because of this delicate context, today more than ever before, brands need to get it right – or even better – brands need to make it right, by setting the right example.

Cracking Down on Stereotypes

France, Belgium, South Africa and more recently the UK… In a growing number of markets, advertising authorities are cracking down on stereotypical advertising to stop women and minorities from internalising the stereotypes that society has imposed upon them for centuries. In the UK, new rules published in 2017 found that harmful stereotypes reinforced by advertising “can restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults.”

In August 2019, two ads were the first casualties of the ASA’s ban on gender stereotypes in advertising. The first ad for Volkswagen showed in juxtaposition male astronauts and a woman next to a pushchair – indirectly suggesting that women should be confined to their maternal role. The second, for Philadelphia cheese depicted new dads leaving a baby on a restaurant buffet conveyor belt, too distracted by the food – and thus perpetuating the stereotype that men are not able to care for children.

This new regulatory context means that on top of potential social media backlash, brands risk getting their ad banned altogether should their ads contain a glimpse of stereotype. So how can brands avoid being stereotypical? And how can they prevent unforeseen social reactions or bans?

More Diversity = Less Stereotypes

In order for brands to get better at considering sensitivities a change needs to happen, both brand-side and agency-side, for more diversity and equal opportunities within the creative community. Although the situation has somewhat improved in recent years, diversity and equality remain a challenge in the advertising industry. Last year, Heineken released an ad in which a bartender slides a beer past three dark-skinned people to a lighter-skinned woman, with the tagline “Sometimes, lighter is better.” How did that ever get approved? The answer is simple: the white people working on the project didn’t even consider that it could be offensive. They were only being accidentally racist. 

There is no doubt that the first steps in improving the stories we tell is to give a voice to those who get the bigger picture; not just to the white, privileged males (no offence if you fit this description).

Brands Need to be Vigilant Every Step of the Way

To put it bluntly: campaign screw ups can happen at every step of the creative process. From the initial concept to the final edit, brands must stay alert and ensure they consider sensitivities at every stage of the campaign development. The concept can be the core issue (e.g. the racist Dolce & Gabbana ad) – but so can the casting, script, costumes, accessories, editing, translation… An easy way to consider cultural, racial, sexual or gender sensitivities at every stage of the creative process is to ask: how would a person who isn’t white / cisgender / heterosexual / privileged / male feel about this? Representation is a matter of perspective, so it certainly helps to try and consider how other people may feel about a creative concept, or its execution.

When working on global campaigns that run in multiple markets, it’s key to consult local experts. They can help ensure the creative concept, copy and visuals won’t cause any offence – and detect any potential stereotype. Local experts can also help understand the local rules in place when it comes to stereotypes and representation. Each market has very distinct codes when it comes to clearance procedures – again, local knows best.

How We Can Help

At Freedman, we pride ourselves in being diverse, multicultural and multitalented, with a majority of the leading positions being held by women – which is a distinctive advantage, in an otherwise uniform advertising landscape. We get the bigger picture, and can help you get it too.

Moreover, through our network of local experts we help our clients validate initial concepts and storyboards, before checking the creative at every step of the journey, ensuring it doesn’t go against any sensitivities, cultural taboos or regulations. We also guide our clients through the clearance process, helping them get their ads validated by clearance bodies before being aired. In the instance of French or UK rules against stereotypes, our local experts are fully aware of what constitutes a stereotypical representation, and would reject a concept or creative with any hint of stereotype.

To Wrap Up

In a world that’s more and more fragmented it’s hard to get it right every time. While the Peloton ad can be dismissed as being just another ad, there’s no doubt that the accumulation of stereotypical content can be harmful long term for women and minority groups. The time has come for brands to do better and create content that unites, rather than divides.

Get in touch to find out how we can help you get it right – or even better – make it right.

Eleonore Maudet
Eleonore Maudet profile picture

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