An ad that has been called among other things “perplexing”, “sexist”, “cringeworthy” and even “dystopian” has set the internet ablaze.

The holiday ad from Peloton, a maker of internet-connected indoor stationary bikes, is titled “The Gift That Gives Back” and features a woman referred to as Grace in Boston documenting her workouts on the Peloton for her husband, who gifted her a Peloton.

Many critics say that the ad looks like it is part of the twisted sci-fi series Black Mirror. From the fact that the woman already looks quite fit to her facial expressions, which lend themselves to the suggestion that she’s being held against her will, Peloton managed to fit a lot of food for critics into a single 30-second spot.

Attention-seeking at any cost is not effective marketing

While Peloton hasn’t yet responded to requests for comment about the viral ad, the company, which went public in September, is no stranger to controversy. For example, Peloton CEO John Foley has called his company’s bikes, which cost upwards of $2,000 a piece, “crazy affordable”. And the content the company uses in ads and posts on social media frequently features imagery of Peloton bikes in luxurious, over-the-top settings.

When one Twitter user called attention to the imagery earlier this year, Peloton apparently didn’t feel the need to respond to the substance of the criticism, which suggested that the company was perhaps a little bit out-of-touch for a business that aspires to become an iconic mainstream brand. Instead, a company spokesperson boasted, “That thread demonstrated that Peloton has officially become part of the cultural conversation.”

In other words, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Is such a belief increasingly common today? In a mediascape filled with noise, it appears some brands trying to cut through the clutter don’t just accept negative attention, they embrace it.

The problem with this attitude is that the purpose of marketing is not to see how many people you can get to pay attention when you scream “fire!” in a public place; it is to deliver a message to the right people at the right time to achieve critical business objectives.

Simplistic earned media calculations, which treat attention gained from screaming “fire!” as being the same as attention gained from more legitimate efforts on a dollar-to-dollar basis, permit brands to be less thoughtful — or even thoughtless — when creating and executing marketing campaigns. Yet remarkably, skin-deep analyses of earned media are all too common.

While it’s likely that we’ll never know key details about the creation of Peloton’s ad and how it was approved, the company’s response to past controversy suggests that extreme confidence borne of its cult-like status blinded it to the risks of a poorly-conceived ad campaign, especially during the holiday shopping season.

Unfortunately for the company, the latest ad has not just spawned public criticism but spooked investors, sending the company’s shares tumbling 9% on Tuesday, offering a cautionary tale for other brands a little too eager to believe that bad buzz is better than no buzz.

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