The internet collectively cringed at Peloton’s ad in which a husband gave his wife an exercise bike as a holiday gift. The ad sparked a wave of criticism and inspired a series of spoofs depicting the consequences of what many considered to be an outrageous gifting gaffe.
Fitness-themed gifts can be a minefield. Luckily, there’s research that can help you send the right message.
First, know that even if you’re pretty sure that your recipient would appreciate a fitness-related gift, there’s a good chance you’re wrong. In my research with Tal Eyal and Nicholas Epley, we asked couples to predict how much their partners liked or disliked a variety of activities such as cycling and exercising and to guess how many of their partners’ responses they predicted correctly. We found that couples were far worse at guessing their partners’ responses than they thought.
Although you might think that putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and imagining things from that person’s point of view might improve your accuracy, our research found that this doesn’t work. We instructed some couples in our experiments to put themselves in their partners’ shoes and discovered that this strategy didn’t make them more accurate. If anything, it made them worse. That’s because even your best mental picture of your loved one’s wants and needs is likely to be flawed and incomplete, and thus, relying exclusively on your intuition will probably lead you astray.
The best way to know what your recipient wants is to stop guessing and start listening. And although asking a recipient might seem unimaginative and lazy, it turns out that recipients actually prefer gifts they explicitly asked for to gifts that givers came up with on their own.
Second, recipients are more likely to be offended by a fitness-themed gift if they feel like they’re being singled out. They might reasonably wonder, “why an exercise bike?” “what are they trying to tell me?” and “should I be offended?”
Giving a shared gift — like a shared exercise bike or matching yoga mats — can avoid this trap and cause the recipient to feel more connected to you. Even better are gifts that can be experienced together like a gym membership. And although givers often shy away from giving experiential gifts because they seem riskier than material gifts, recipients derive more happiness from experiences than material goods and feel closer to the people who gifted them.
Finally, no one wants to get a fitness gift that implies they need to change. Not only is this insulting, but people are generally uncomfortable with products that seem intended to change the user by giving them traits or abilities that they don’t already have. A fitness gift needs to carry the message that it’s meant to enhance the recipient’s life, not alter it.
Regardless of how appropriate the fitness gift might seem to you, remember that people like gift givers who see them and love them for who they are, love handles and all.
Mary Steffel is an assistant professor of marketing at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University.