Peloton: Controversy and its effect on a brand

Last year, Peloton released a commercial that, for many, was considered controversial. A husband gifted his wife a Peloton for Christmas. This was considered, by some, an insulting gift to give your wife. As the controversy went viral, so did the ad (9 million hits on Youtube, 7600 TV spots as of Dec 6, 2019). There is a saying that "all press is good press". At Cube, we wanted to understand how the negative press affected the viewer's non-conscious response to the ad.

Pre-Test: Created two different groups.

Group A: Before seeing the ad was shown the following message: "This ad is controversial"

Group B: Was shown the ad with no warning

(We then removed anyone who, post-test, answered that they knew about the ad, or had previously seen it)


As expected, those who knew that the ad was going to be controversial showed significantly higher levels of attention than those who were not warned before the test. This heightened attention remained high throughout the full 30-second duration of the commercial. While this is interesting, it was an expected result.

What we could not have predicted was the effect the ad had on the viewer's emotional valence. Valence refers to whether a given emotion is positive or negative; it is what we use to determine if a viewer will gain affection for the product/brand or conversely create non-conscious biases. Here, the control group (i.e., those who received no warning before seeing the ad) had much more positive emotional valence than Group A, creating two, very distinct audience responses.

Moreover, normally attention levels fall off at some point during an advertisement (usually the middle). Successful ads are able to keep user's arousal levels strong. In Group B, we see the ad that has achieved that. Without the controversy, the viewer's reaction to this commercial is quite strong.


From our lab results, we can conclude that the controversy associated with this commercial did shift the emotional valence of the audience. However, and more importantly, it generated significantly more interest in the ad in the real world (i.e., times viewed). So does this overall negative balance matter if the ad is seen more often and by more people?

When looking at the breakdown of our participants' response in the circumplex below, we see that although Group A is composed of more negative responses than Group B, as many as 30% of those in Group A had a positive overall response to the ad, similar to Group B.

Red: Group A Blue: Group B

The increase in attention this ad has received, in spite of any controversy, has boosted the overall viewership of the ad and the brand to the point where it has become part of the current cultural landscape. Thus, although the ad is generating negative emotions, the mere fact that it has become popular is good news for the brand: even amongst those who know it is controversial, the response will not always be negative, as seen in the circumplex above.

In addition, a negative emotional response to a commercial is not necessarily bad news. When viewers are highly engaged, whether they are in agreement or in disagreement, joyful or saddened, pleased or angry toward an ad isn't the most important outcome. Instead, it is the intensity of the experience, and the potential for the ad to be remembered, which can truly have an effect on outcomes such as brand recall, purchase intent, and other important metrics.

In this Peloton ad, the effect of controversy was an overall higher engagement with the commercial. That, coupled with the sheer volume of views generated by such a controversy, boosted the probability that the ad be remembered by viewers.

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