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“Use As Directed” Isn’t Just a Lawyer-Mandated Slogan

By Bruce Hennes, Hennes Communications

(Editor’s Note:  The article below was written on April 19.  On May 5, Peloton completely reversed itself and agreed to recall its Tread Plus treadmills from the U.S. market in a deal struck with federal safety regulators.  “I want to be clear, Peloton made a mistake in our initial response to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s request that we recall the Tread+,” said Peloton John Foley in a statement. “We should have engaged more productively with (the CPSC) from the outset. For that, I apologize.”  The company has offered a full refund of over $4,000 for every machine.  Was this reversal a bow to new evidence of danger?  An attempt to stop the flood of bad stories and shore-up the stock price?  Or perhaps a calculated decision based on weighing the cost of defending or settling a series of lawsuits versus the cost of refunds for each bicycle returned?  At press time, those are all good questions.)

Just a few days ago, the Consumer Product Safety Commission warned consumers to immediately stop using the popular Peloton Tread+ treadmill after reports of injuries to children and pets, including the unfortunate death of one child.  You can read that CPSC announcement here (caution: it includes a link to a video that some may find disturbing).

Allowing no time to lapse, Peloton concurrently issued its own statement, stressing the importance of safety but disagreeing with the CPSC’s call not to use the product in homes with pets or small children.

Peloton products have become hugely popular, especially over the last year with COVID-enforced gym closures. But these accusations of harm to innocent children and pets could pose a serious threat to the company’s business and come at a particularly significant time given its recent launch of a big Olympics ad campaign.

With the stakes so high, I give company leaders credit for their response.  They didn’t duck the issue and they didn’t sound lawyered.  Instead, they responded in a timely manner with empathy and forthrightly with factual information.

All households and businesses use products that are unsafe unless used as directed.  Those aren’t just words mandated by corporate attorneys — they really have meaning and consequences.  Whether it’s a simple extension cord, ladder, chainsaw, can opener or toilet bowl cleaner, almost every product has the potential to do harm.

From its carefully designed and aptly named Safety Key to multiple warning labels, it seems to me that Peloton anticipated how its product could be used — and misused.  But at some point, the consumer must bear responsibility.

The larger issue here is really about risk communications.  Zero defects, zero harm and zero deaths are laudatory goals, but almost impossible to achieve in modern society.  Unfortunately, government, business and medicine have done terrible jobs of putting risk in context.  So far, there have been seven million Johnson & Johnson COVID shots given in the U.S.  Seven recipients of those vaccines have developed serious blood clots.  Taking as few chances as possible, and despite the enormous risk to its corporate reputation, J&J voluntarily put that vaccine on-hold.  Though it’s too early to tell, we predict the hold will quickly be lifted and the vaccine injections will continue, albeit with the same warnings as before, similar to the warnings that accompany the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

I’m not attempting to dismiss the seven blood clots as inconsequential.  But when I think about the 40,000 people killed every year in the U.S. by cars without a serious move to ban cars, I think there are risks that remain reasonable to take.

Should Peloton continue its pre-Olympics advertising campaign?  I say yes.  However, the company may want to consider using the Olympics to directly address the situation above, perhaps with a short message like, “We sell the best treadmills in the world.  But every treadmill can be dangerous if it isn’t used correctly.  Please – be sure to use the Safety Key and keep your kids and animals away from all treadmills because “use as directed” isn’t just a slogan.  It’s a must.”

Another suggestion is to seek opportunities to bring even more attention to the potential misuse of treadmills with an education campaign.  Although counterintuitive to the traditional practice of public relations, a crisis communications response often calls for running toward the problem, not away from it, especially since none of its competitors can easily point to Peloton and say Peloton manufactures an unsafe treadmill – but they don’t.

I think Peloton will weather this storm just fine.  In fact, this just might go down as a textbook example of exactly what to do in the face of a product safety concern.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to use my ladder, chainsaw and car – and even those little e-scooters you see around so many cities these days.  And if I hadn’t already received my two Moderna vaccines, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to get the J&J vaccine.   All of those products come with a risk– a risk that’s been well-communicated to me, and a risk I’m willing to take.

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