Did Peloton Just Experience the Worst Product Placement in History?

Big spoiler alert for all Sex and the City fans who haven’t yet watched the first episode of the reboot TV show, ‘And Just Like That…’.

Even if you haven’t seen the ‘He’s Alive’ episode, you’ve probably heard about the recent product placement wreck involving ‘Mr. Big’ and his Peloton exercise bike. This created not only potential damage to the Peloton brand, but its publicly traded stock tumbled significantly as well. CoolTool wondered: Just how strong is this connection between inappropriate product placement and damage to the Peloton brand? 

Let’s start from the beginning

All Sex and the City fans looked forward to the reboot called ‘And Just Like That…’ to see the return of all their favorite characters (except Samantha – a bummer she didn’t return). 

The first episode was intriguing not only due to the reintroduction of familiar characters after so many years, but also because of the surprising death of the love of Carrie’s life, Mr. Big. 

How did he die? Well, he had a heart attack after a workout on his Peloton exercise bike. During the two days of the series launch, Peloton shares fell 15.3%. Not such a great product placement, right?

So, let’s have a look at what happened

Yes, it is a sad fact – Peloton played an indirect role in the demise of one of the most iconic romantic leads in TV, which put the brand in an awkward position. However, it’s crucial to mention that Peloton claims it knew nothing about Mr. Big’s death; it was not aware of the plotline because of confidentiality requirements of the script. The brand coordinated with HBO on the placement of the bike but did not pay for the product placement. What a bargain, right? However, it claims it didn’t know exactly how its bike was going to be used. So, we would imagine that somewhere within Peloton HQ, marketers and execs may have had their own cardiac event after watching the episode with Mr. Big’s death. 

In a panic, marketers from Peloton immediately launched the ad ‘He’s Alive’ in an effort to undo the brand damage and cheer up upset fans who responded negatively over Mr. Big’s death. In this video, we see a resurrected Mr. Big with the title ‘And just like that … he’s alive’. In this ‘recovery’ ad, Mr. Big (AKA Chris Noth, who is 67 years old) seems to enjoy the company of a 30-something ‘riding’ companion. So… Mr. Big is still alive but left his wife, Carrie Bradshaw, for a younger woman?? It was not the best move for Sex and the City fans, considering the history of Carrie and Mr. Big. But, that’s for you to judge 

Update: Following these events, Peloton had to pull this ad because star Chris Noth was accused of sexual assault by two women. However, you still can watch this video with eye-tracking and emotion measurement data on CoolTool’s Youtube channel. 

This is not the first advertising blunder for Peloton. Remember the woman who was already stick-thin but was riding her Peloton to lose even more weight? Remember that backlash? 

So, our question is: What really is the impact on Peloton’s brand with this most recent ‘Big’ blunder?

To answer this, we conducted a study using both online surveys and neuromarketing tools that allow us to capture people’s nonconscious reactions. Why measure nonconscious reactions? With any socially charged or widely discussed topic, people often give stated answers that could be formed by social pressures or other people. At the same time, their ‘real’ attitude could be different. 

We used the implicit research method to determine whether Peloton’s poor product placement caused damage to the Peloton brand or category. At the same time, we researched whether the company’s lightning-fast response – the video ‘He’s Alive‘ – helped the situation or added fuel to the fire. Let’s figure it out. But first… 

A bit of boring but necessary research methodology background

Sample size: United States, nationwide sample, online, 333 respondents

Date: December 14, 2021

Time from study idea to insights: less than 24 hours 

Technologies used (via CoolTool online insights platform): 

  • AI-powered webcam eye-tracking (tracks viewers’ attention)
  • Emotion measurement (measures emotional reactions through facial coding)
  • Implicit tests (measures implicit connections toward the brand)
  • Surveys (used to gain demographic data, and answers to closed- and open-ended questions)

Audience and sample structure: 

  • Group #1: Did not watch the first episode of ‘And Just Like That…’ and was not exposed to the ‘He’s Alive’ ad. 
  • Group #2: Watched the first episode of ‘And Just Like That…’, and was not exposed to the ‘He’s Alive’ ad. 
  • Group #3: A combination of those who watched the first episode and those who did not, with all exposed to the ‘He’s Alive’ ad. 

A few more details about our respondents: 

  • 89% declare they do cardio training, 49% regularly 
  • 37% declare they are big fans of Sex and the City, 47% like it, 14% neutral, and only 2% have a negative attitude toward the show
  • 25% declare they own Peloton sport equipment 
  • 33% male, 67% female 
  • Ages 18-65 
  • All respondents were aware of the Peloton brand – this was a part of the recruitment criteria

How big is Mr. Big’s death?

When we ran this study, one-third (35%) of all consumers had already heard that Peloton stock fell due to this case. And among all consumers, only 20% had seen the Sex and the City reboot series. We recruited a boost sample to gain 110 consumers who had seen the new series to measure their reactions. 

We measured attitude towards the Peloton brand using two different implicit reaction methods: IPT (Implicit Priming Test) and RTT (Reaction Time Test). 

We discovered that the overall attitude towards the brand (Brand Emotional Appeal) has not significantly changed (see the chart below), yet there are directional differences in the Affordable and Harmful brand associations that warrant further research. Consumers who have watched the new ‘And Just Like That…’ series tend to lose their implicit confidence that Peloton is not harmful.

chart of emotional appeal of peloton brand


chart displaying image perception of peloton


From this date, it doesn’t appear that the potential negative impact is significant. We also checked results for different groups and didn’t find significant threats for Peloton brand users and other audiences. So, was Peloton’s response reasonable?

How well does the ‘He’s Alive’ campaign fit the mission to protect the Peloton brand?

To understand the potential impact of this campaign, we used implicit testing. We measured people’s attention and reactions using webcam eye-tracking and facial expressions analysis. This allows us to uncover what users see and feel behind their conscious control. 

We also checked traditional survey questions and everything looked pretty good – the ad was perceived as likable, clear, and believable. However, as we dived into the implicit (nonconscious) reactions, we saw a different story. 

chart of evaluation of the peloton 'he's alive' ad (explicit reaction)


Among people who watched the ad, the brand’s emotional appeal (brand attractiveness on an implicit level) worsened compared to the audience who never viewed it. 

We also see this ad slightly reduced both emotional valence and arousal, which is not a good sign for the brand.

chart of valence vs. arousal


Why do the survey and implicit results indicate different findings?

Ads are about emotions. Sex and the City is all about emotions. So, we measured users’ emotions via webcam while they watched the ads and captured emotional changes as the ad was shown. As you can see in the below chart, this ad provoked strong negative emotions – especially at the end, when the brand was revealed.

line graph displaying negative vs. positive emotions of users while they watched the ad


These negative emotions rose only among those who watched the new Sex and the City series. And, the leading negative emotion here is skepticism. The data indicates that viewers who lost a favorite character in the series don’t feel any relief from this ad.

chart measuring skepticism vs. delight


Not surprisingly, the new character (a young fitness instructor, Jess King) provoked more skepticism than anything else in the video. We also used CoolTool’s eye-tracking capabilities to capture not only emotional impact, but also the areas that experienced the highest visual engagement among viewers of the ad.

eye tracking chart


Women were also much more skeptical watching the ad than men. The main points provoking skepticism are the appearance of Jess King, the audio track describing how healthy cardio training is, and the logo displayed at the end. Probably – and it’s just an assumption – skepticism appeared because viewers realized that it was just an advertisement and not a teaser for a new episode where Mr. Big is alive. Or, maybe it’s due to the voice intonation in the ad’s audio track – we are used to hearing these kinds of “official” voices when listening to warnings about the side effects of drugs, so this could provoke such an unexpected implicit reaction of skepticism.

chart displaying skepticism of male vs. female subjects


To take this further, we did subgroup analysis and discovered one group for whom this ad was most emotionally engaging. Those who didn’t watch the new series actually perceived the ad more positively, reacting to content without negative emotions and responding positively to jokes (the overall intensity of these emotions is pretty low, though).

But even for this audience, the ad didn’t improve the overall implicit attitude (emotional appeal) toward the Peloton brand and even made it slightly worse.

We can see that the panic reaction of the “He’s Alive” ad to reclaim brand damage had a doubtful positive effect on those who have never seen the series. But, it does provoke profound skepticism and a rather negative impact on those who have seen the Sex and the City reboot.

The lesson to learn…

This marketing story is fascinating. Did the Peloton team overreact? Flash reaction to a market situation is essential – remember, the Peloton team created this ad within just two days – but maybe it is better to spend one more day and test it? We advocate for this approach. CoolTool provides efficient tools that allow this type of research to be fast and low cost. We did this research in less than 24 hours using a very small marketing budget. Had we relied on survey results only, we would have come away with an inaccurate assessment of the impact on Peloton’s brand. The nonconscious results led us to the moment of truth.

Thanks for reading and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and discussions with us.

A version of the preceding article was originally published on CoolTool’s blog.

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