Sometimes, an ad can be a perfect distillation of the nightmare in which we live. Earlier this year, Burger King tried to “start a conversation” about mental health and encouraged its viewers to #feelyourway, which, coming from a fast food company, seemed like a good way to sell depressed people hamburgers. In 2017, Pepsi’s “Live for Now” campaign had Kendall Jenner solve racism with complimentary cans of Pepsi. In 2005, GE put sexy coal miners to the tune of “16 Tons,” a song lamenting the coal industry’s exploitation of workers.
“The Gift That Gives Back,” a Peloton ad featuring a perfectly fit woman learning to love the burden of being gifted exercise equipment isn’t quite like the others. Peloton did not try to cash in on civil strife or mental illness, nor did they try to appropriate art that likens its industry to the stealer of souls, Satan. Instead, they tried to make our confession-obsessed society look good, even romantic.
Philosopher Michel Foucault declared in 1976 that the “confession” was “one of the West’s most highly valued techniques for producing truth.” The act of spilling your worst thoughts and deeds to your neighborhood priest spread to the justice system, to hospitals, education, and relationships. Whereas we might have once chronicled our impure thoughts and deeds in the confessional, we now do so to judges, psychiatrists, teachers, parents, and lovers.
This is important because, where one might view power as something exercised by cabals of people behind closed doors, it instead exists as a network that permeates throughout our relationships, in our institutions, in our thoughts and actions. It is not simply that a teacher holds power over you, but that you’ve learned to behave, think, act, and relate to your teacher in a way which makes you a “good student.” When one confesses to their partner that they have not used their $2,000+ exercise bike, it affirms that it is they who control their exercise destiny, that they must carry their own shame, that the only crime here is their own. The real power lies in the relationship itself, not some kind of dictatorial power one holds in their partner’s exercise routine.
Foucault did not live to see how confession would become a foundational force in the age of the internet. We have become singularly obsessed with the curation of our self, transmitting both our triumphs and failures, while Silicon Valley quietly collects enough personal data to determine if we’d be more receptive to an ad for a vitamin subscription service or discreetly packaged erectile dysfunction pills. Or, in the case of Peloton, creating a sense of virtual accountability with a remote spin instructor or a digital journal for your sedentary husband to quietly judge.
Foucault coined the term “biopower” to describe how sovereignty shifted from a model based on the monarch’s ability to murder those who have wronged them to a model based on the preservation of life. The advent of biopower saw the scientific management of populations, where governments became interested in fighting deviancy and developing healthy, fit civilians (who could conveniently be drafted to murder their enemies or colonize the world). But importantly, because biopower exists in a network of actors, relationships, and discourse, it exists not just in the tyranny of Michelle Obama asking America’s children to move, but in the internalized message that one must take charge of one’s own health and, if necessary, pay $39 a month to have a stranger on the internet tell you to “climb that hill.”
While “oh no, I have to take care of myself” might not seem all that dystopic, contemporary neoliberalism has used forms of biopower to offload societal burdens onto the backs of individuals. Poor health is not, for instance, the fault of an economy that asks most Americans to sit still in a chair for 8–10 hours. Nor is it the fault of decreased access to public parks, fresh produce, or affordable healthcare. Rather, the burden rests solely on the individual, who, for a totally reasonable cost of $2,245, must wake up before sunrise to maintain her cardiovascular health and ward off her husband’s inevitable infidelity.
The result is a web of health services that either allow us to be our best selves, or create an insidious network of surveillance, depending on how you frame it. Fitness watches, heart rate monitors, and habit-tracking apps impose a kind of internalized discipline Foucault could only dream of. This discipline also exists in the larger context of policing bodies, or to simply quote comedian Eva Victor’s parody of the commercial: “My husband is sleeping soundly next to me, but I couldn’t sleep a wink because what kind of sociopath gets his wife a fucking stationary bike? Seriously, what the hell, what are you trying to say?”
The Twitter-verse has compared the Peloton ad to “15 Million Merits,” a Black Mirror episode in which people pedal on stationary bikes for social status and money. However, the episode imagines a world where an oppressive hierarchy and economic need force people to pedal their lives away. In subtle contrast, the threat of starvation doesn’t need to grease the wheels of our fit-ocracy for Peloton. Instead, it shows us a world where people will gleefully comply solely to attain social status and congratulations from a digital avatar or a tone-deaf husband.
Our gift-recipient’s thoroughly memed look-of-horror belies the truth that her fitness journey wasn’t all that self-motivated to begin with. Even a young, fit woman must be in constant fear of falling behind her partner’s beauty expectations. “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me,” our Peloton recipient tells her husband, a sly admission that a venture-funded exercise bike has shaped the core of who she is. That’s the point of biopower — to create empty subjects who can be filled with whatever dominant ideology requires.
So get back on that bike, it’s time to take a stationary ride.