I’ve been unfortunate enough to be exposed to a great deal of live (read: non-streaming, non-DVR) television lately, a disappointing situation to occur right around the holidays, when every single advertisement is filled with smiling families, lavishing each other with piles of bow-covered gifts. From puppies to cars, headphones to televisions, the ads usually feature a young, suburbanite, heterosexual couple or family, where one member is smugly watching their spouse or children as the other(s) go into near epileptic shock on Christmas morning. Snow covers the ground outside, wrapping paper covers the floor inside, and credit card debt covers the rest of the year’s (years’?) budget.
This season, there’s one ad that dares buck the trend and, somehow, ends up being even worse. Titled “His & Hers”, this 30-second spot features a husband (presumably, our Him) waking up at the crack of dawn to sneak out into the snow-surrounded garage and ride a stationary bike. Not just any stationary bike, though: it’s Her bike. We know this, because Him has already placed a bow and a tag with her name on it. And that’s not all. This bike—Her bike—comes with a large touchscreen on which Him can watch a live studio feed of extremely fit trainers yelling encouraging platitudes at him. This, of course, is a Peloton bike.
Peloton have been selling their $2,000 stationary bicycle since 2014 and released a $4,000 treadmill, The Tread, back in January. As of July 2018, the New York City based company claims nearly 1 million subscribers to their $39/month personal training service, noting that the hardware is actually a loss-leader (something I find remarkable, given that you could buy 200 “Your Workout Is My Warmup” t-shirts instead of the treadmill). Wall Street doesn’t seem to mind: Peloton recently received a cash influx valuing it at over $4 billion and plans to go public soon. If you’d rather not pony up for the Tread, there are competitors: at $3,000, the Nordictrack X22i offers a partnership with iFit, an independent start-up whose subscription is between $8 and $15 per month (there is a Peloton Bike copycat, Flywheel, but it is priced identically to their competitor’s offering—Peloton is actually suing them for patent infringement).
Visiting the Peloton, iFit, and Nordictrack websites feels familiar if you’ve ever shopped for a quantified-self product. I don’t just mean in terms of the structure of the page or the design elements—these are pretty consistent, no matter the industry. The rhetoric, however, could probably be interchanged without anyone noticing: “Your fitness essentials, your personal coach”, “Transform your lifestyle into a fitness tool”, “Live total body fitness has a new home: yours”. Compare these with the heds, “Find Your Fit” and “Be Unique. Be Equal” from two previous subjects of my blogposts, FitBit and the ZOZO Measurement System, respectively. The fitness companies are selling convenience and performance, but also customization. When profitability, longevity, and investor cycles are of utmost concern, how do you customize for a million people?
First, eye contact. Watching examples of these videos (I did not sign up for the services, the reason for which I will partly explain below), the trainers are, for the most part, looking right at the camera. There are mainly two exceptions: when angles change to show you how the trainers’ or in-studio extras’ muscles flex and glisten and, in the case of iFit’s primary offering, when the trainer is looking out for tourists. Because while iFit does not feature Peloton-like live classes, you can find over 1,400 training videos set in six continents in the site’s library. As one reviewer describes it:
These are often unintentionally hilarious. Many of the most scenic places in the world are not workout-friendly. A trainer gets death stares from tourists strolling along the Cinque Terre; another dodges backpackers hiking on narrow cliffside trails to Macchu Picchu. One trainer fell into an elephant wallow. On a causeway to Antelope Island, the trainer admitted that she was doing a series of fartleks in 90-degree heat, through bugs that were so dense that I could see them splattering on the camera lens.
Let’s add, then, a second method of making the customer feel, literally, one-in-a-million: an aspirational neocolonialism. Is there a better way to explore the world out there than by running on your treadmill in your basement?
And then there are the trainers themselves: fit, muscular, larger-than-life personalities, and all working for you. In one promo video for Nordictrack, multiple customers give a shout-out to Johnny Gel—“Johnny on the Spot!” Search Etsy for one of Peloton’s celeb trainers, “Cody Rigsby” and find more than a dozen items, many emblazoned with some of Cody’s trademark aphorisms: “Do whatever you need to do to get your life together!” and “When we’re uncomfortable, we change!” The New York Times published a piece on this cult of personality last year, noting that ”perhaps no brand is trying harder to make the connection between working out and glossy entertainment more explicit than Peloton.” And one skeptic-turned-fanatic blogger writes, “the screen on my bike turns [Cody] into this untouchable celebrity to me.” After her first 100-mile ride (out on the open road), she tweeted a message of thanks to Cody. He responded, “congrats boo!”
Perusing TV spots and example classes on YouTube, one can find a range of sentiments expressed by the trainers. At the end of a run along the narrow paths of Santorini, iFit trainer John Peel lets you know that, “I’m very, very proud of you.” Peloton personality Ally Love, as she ramps up her class, reminds you to “Give yourself permission to show up for yourself” (whatever that means). On the other hand, Robin Arzon, who features prominently in the New York Times piece, tells you to “Put the babies away, put the headphones on, because I am not holding back today” while her in-studio DJ (also wearing biking gloves?) spins her class playlist. And Alex Toussaint, as the workout hits a peak moment declares, “One more to go, I ain’t done wit’ you yet!” (The previous three examples can be found in the following video)
Certainly, the cultish fitness personality is nothing new: from Jack LaLanne to Richard Simmons, Tony Little to Jillian Michaels. But the connected nature of these devices adds a new dimension. Both Peloton and iFit feature leaderboards—the former updates live during classes, while the latter lets you know how you performed relative to other users after you finish the workout. Instructors can make adjustments to your settings remotely. During live classes, Peloton trainers are known to call out participants by their username or leaderboard position.
We might, then, understand the bike, the screen, the statistics, and the trainer all together as a single interconnected system or machine with which the user “becomes one”. This is much in the same way that a gambler and a slot machine, per Natascha Schüll in her 2012 Addiction by Design, “are harmonically synchronized to a common beat.” She goes on:
Although the decisive act of a gambler starts the reels spinning or the cards flipping, the immediacy of the machine’s response joins human and machine in a hermetically closed circuit of action such that the locus of control—and thus, of agency—becomes indiscernible. What begins as an autonomous act thus “becomes part of the automatic actions and reaction of the doer,” as the game scholar Gordon Calleja writes in his study of online digital games, resulting in “a loss of the sense of self.”
Seeing the ads on TV, watching user videos on YouTube, and reading first-hand accounts of Peloton and iFit users, there is an uncanny-valley type meditation to the way that a user relates to the device.
I completely recognize that there are much worse addictions than exercise—gambling chiefly among them. But I want to use the rest of my space here to consider what’s at stake. As I briefly noted earlier, in August of this year, Peloton locked down over half a million dollars in venture funding, resulting in an overall valuation of $4 billion. At a million subscribers, that means that each customer is worth around $4,000. As they add more customers, the company’s valuation will go up, but there’s a point at which that caps out and the value of each user begins to decline with each new customer acquired. Peloton really needs, then, its current riders and runners to stay addicted and to feel like the service being provided is largely customized.
But as I already demonstrated, the effort here is not to customize perfectly, as doing so for 1 million people would be a futile endeavor. Instead, it’s to make the users feel like the system has been designed for them. The company can make customers feel as though it has each one of their best interests in mind because it can group those customers into generalized categories, while still espousing the “individualized” rhetoric. As Peloton personality Alex Toussaint instructs, “This is your dream, this is your ride…dictate your own success, baby!” In turn, users fall in line with what they are told is best for their category, not their selves. A rider might over-exert to meet the demands of the trainer or get to the top of the leaderboard. Without trained staff to oversee the rider’s condition in person, this could be extremely dangerous to one’s health. Further, companies can leech customers for more cash through absurd up-selling, like the iFit Nourish. This $80/mo subscription-based shake service (you read that right) promises 15 servings of a “unique formulation,” made just for the customer and delivered each billing cycle.
Enough, however, about the current subscribers. What about those who are left out? Usually, when I critique a system like the ones I am looking at here, I want to use it. I’ve sent my spit to 23andMe, worn a Fitbit for weeks at a time, and even put on that stupid spandex suit only to discover my legs are different lengths. But even if I had two grand to drop on a bike (which does not include the $125 shoes or $59 floor mat, lest I scuff my composite flooring), and the $39/mo to hear Cody encourage me on a daily basis, there’s simply no way I could use any of these products without serious damage to my body.
In 2009, I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a degenerative collagen disorder which is often accompanied by immunodeficiencies, gastro-intestinal conditions, and other debilitating ailments. I won’t get into the nitty gritty of what this all means, but if I were to do more than 15–20 minutes on the bike at an easy pace, I would be in a great deal of pain and discomfort for days after (I can’t even think about running anymore). I of course recognize that my inability to jump on a Peloton bike does not, by itself, mean that the entire company’s offering is inherently bad or dangerous. Instead, I want to pause and ask you to consider what happens when the fit body—the ones that look like the trainers or studio-riders on the Peloton screen—is valued over all else. Nordictrack rhetoric is, at times, dominated by declarations of how much weight can be lost when the iFit system is used. But by valuing the fit body, the body that is unable to become fit is devalued and jettisoned. The fit body, in Peloton’s case, is worth $4,000. The disabled one is worth nothing. And while I’m not asking Wall Street to start figuring out how to extract value from me because I am not worthy of being “fit”, there is an obvious bleeding over of what investment bankers see as valuable into what is considered socially advantageous in late capitalism.
At the end of “His & Hers,” Her finds the bike next to the tree on Christmas morning, bow and tag attached and intact. “How did you know!?” Her asks as His smiles proudly in the background. What drove the smug His to use this generous gift before handing it over? Was it the large, seductive touch screen and carbon steel construction? Did His find a trainer that he liked so much, he couldn’t resist sneaking around his partner to take commands from a stranger in a TV studio in New York? Or maybe His just wanted to rack up some high leaderboard points before Her could even place her backside on the seat. Whatever the reason, this beautiful, white, affluent couple with one daughter (she makes an appearance in the final shot), a large house in the suburbs, and detached garage is worth a lot of money to Peloton. So whatever it takes to keep that seat filled, they will do.
Gabi Schaffzin is a PhD candidate in Art History, Theory, and Criticism, with a concentration in Art Practice, at UC San Diego. For the holidays, he bought his wife a stuffed animal designed to look like their dog. It creeps him out every day.