HBO Max And Peloton: Who's Zooming Whom?

For a few minutes late last week, Peloton had a bigger problem than slower post-pandemic sales and the reopening of gyms.

Unless you have been in a pop culture coma, you probably know that in the premiere episode of HBO Max’s “And Just Like That,” the sequel to “Sex And The City,” the main character of Mr. Big dies from a heart attack while riding his Peloton bike.

Peloton’s spokesperson Denise Kelly issued a revealing statement a day after the episode aired: “Due to confidentiality reasons, HBO did not disclose the larger context surrounding the scene to Peloton in advance.” Apparently, Peloton didn’t pay for product, placement either.

In other words, it seemed Peloton was blindsided. Its stock dropped 5.38% on Friday. You could just picture CEO John Foley having nightmares of little holiday cards taped to new bikes reading: “Merry Christmas! Here’s a potential heart attack!”

Even I was kept up at night with deep questions: Did HBO have a professional obligation to confidentially tell Peloton that its product was going to take a reputational whack during that first episode? Why did Peloton not push harder for how its bike would be used?

Everything changed on Sunday afternoon: Peloton tweeted a short spot with Mr. Big actor Chris Noth, back from “the dead,” toasting “to new beginnings” with a beautiful woman (actually real-life Peloton instructor Jess King) in front of a fireplace. The ad concluded with Ryan Reynolds, in voiceover, racing through the health benefits of regular cycling.



Are you telling me that in less than three days, Peloton pulled all of that together? Have we all been the victims of a cruel stunt by Peloton, with the assistance of HBO?

Or is this Peloton’s quick and dirty method of genuine tongue-in-cheek damage control?

We may never know if HBO and Peloton were in cahoots on an elaborate PR stunt, or if we have all been witnessing a game of corporate missile volleyball.

Here are three lessons to come from this brouhaha, no matter what advertising conspiracy Kool-Aid we’re drinking:

1) The brand “Hippocratic Oath:” Unless they are bitter rivals, I have to believe that in all good professional conscience, brands obey their own form of Hippocratic Oath with their partners to “do no harm.” It’s a small world out there, where executives hop around regularly, and yesterday’s partnership manager across town is tomorrow’s CMO and your boss.

2) Always be vigilant with your brand: Multimillion-dollar, publicly traded companies should not be loosely donating products without far more careful vetting. Even if no money is exchanged, there is no excuse not to protect your brand -- even if it requires making the interaction public (which of course is the last thing any cable network sitting on a secret would want!).

3) Fight buzz with bigger buzz (and humor): When done well, humor can take the air out of any expanding balloon and change the direction of the conversation. HBO Max rode a big “shock wave” of publicity, while leaving Peloton twisting in the wind. But Peloton had the last laugh with its “Chris Noth is alive” tweet three days later… until it possibly files a lawsuit… if in fact, the joke is not on us.

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