Peloton Responds to Lethal “Sex and the City” Product Placement

Was this Crisis Planned or an Example of Poor Due Diligence?      

12/13/21 – – Late last week social media exploded in response to a plot development in the first episode of “And Just Like That,” HBO’s reboot of the “Sex and the City” series. Shock and anger were directed at the producers and a Peloton exercise bike, which appeared to play a leading role in the sudden death of a major character.

With Mr. Big, played by actor Chris Noth, suffering a fatal heart attack after a spirited ride on the Peloton bike in his apartment, the company’s stock fell as much as 11% the day after the episode’s debut. Fans expressed their outrage with tweets like this:

We didn’t sign up for this shit. Big deserved better, screw you Peloton.

Responding quickly and cleverly to the storm, the company released a statement by Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist and member of Peloton’s health and wellness advisory group, pointing to Mr. Big’s “extravagant lifestyle — including cocktails, cigars, and big steaks” and “a previous cardiac event in season 6.” Dr. Steinbaum concludes:

“These lifestyle choices and perhaps even his family history, which often is a significant factor, were the likely cause of his death. Riding his Peloton Bike may have even helped delay his cardiac event.”

And with amazing speed (almost unbelievable speed), Peloton released a slick video online, narrated by actor Ryan Reynolds, featuring a very healthy Chris Noth sharing an intimate moment in front of a fireplace with Jess King, the popular Peloton instructor who also appears in the episode leading Mr. Big’s final workout. Here’s the dialogue:

NOTH: “To new beginnings.”

KING: “To new beginnings. You look great.”

NOTH: “Oh, I feel great. Should we take another ride? Life’s too short not to.”

As the camera pulls back, we see two Peloton bikes ready for action in the very stylish room. We hear Reynold’s voiceover:

“And just like that, the world was reminded that regular cycling stimulates and improves your heart, lungs and circulation, reducing your risk of cardiovascular diseases. Cycling strengthens your heart muscles, resting pulse and reduces blood-fat levels. He’s alive.”

Here’s the question on my mind: Should this be considered a product placement from hell . . . or is Peloton in cahoots with HBO, cleverly riding the controversy to new heights of helpful publicity for the series and the company? Over the weekend, we got some answers:

Q. Did “And Just Like That” producers ask Peloton to feature its branded bike in the series?

A. Yes. Peloton spokesperson Denise Kelly told Buzzfeed that the company approved the use of one of its bikes in the episode and that a character played by Jess King would be seen on screen leading an exercise session.  

Q. Why would Peloton want one of its bikes featured in the series?

A. Effective product placement can yield enormous marketing benefits. The use of Reese’s Pieces in the hit movie “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” the Mustang featured in the classic “Bullitt” car chase, and the Manolo Blahnik shoes worn by the original “Sex and the City” cast members are a few examples of lucrative  product placements. If “And Just Like That” helps define today’s hip urban lifestyle, it is understandable that Peloton would want to be front and center.  

Q. Why would the producers want to use a branded Peloton bike, rather than a generic model to avoid any legal liability?

A. The showrunner for “And Just Like That,” Michael Patrick King, gave this explanation to The Warp:

“I put Peloton in the show the same way I would put Gucci in the show, because that’s what is happening right now in life. I have a Peloton; people have Pelotons. It’s just always reflecting where society is now. So that’s why it’s in. It’s true. It’s where people are. The death is a fiction; the Peloton is reality.”

Q. Did Peloton know that a main character would suffer a heart attack right after riding one of its bikes?

A. Both Peloton and the producers say no. Peloton told Buzzfeed that the company was “blindsided,” explaining: “Due to confidentiality reasons, HBO did not disclose the larger context surrounding the scene to Peloton in advance.” 

If you believe this crisis truly was unplanned and the company’s response brilliant, then the lesson for marketers reviewing product placement opportunities is: Read the damn script! Your brand deserves that minimum level of due diligence. If producers will not reveal exactly how your name, product, people or property will be featured, decline the offer.

If you suspect this was a coordinated ruse, then the question is: Have HBO, Peloton and the actors involved knowingly risked their reputations and public trust to build audience and sales? To be so reckless at a time when authenticity and honesty are such valued elements of the best brands, is unthinkable.

Let’s hope that HBO and the actors felt so bad about the impact the episode had on a company already saddled with reputational challenges that they peddled at super-human speed to work with Peloton and make things right (and avoid a very messy lawsuit).  

Watch the Peloton response video below:

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