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Is social comparison healthy when it comes to marketing exercise?

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Is social comparison healthy when it comes to marketing exercise?


“Your friends are dreaming it, you’re doing it,” a Nike Run Club ‘coach’ tells you after you hit stop on the app at the end of your jog.

It’s one of many pre-recorded messages the app likes to trickle through user headphones while post-run endorphins pump. 

Some Nike coaches congratulate users for beating personal bests, like track athlete Mo Farah offering compliments on their speed.

Some, like the one above, give runners a boost for getting fitter than their friends.

Healthy competition is a fairly innocent motivation to get active. But at what point does healthy competition become unhealthy comparison when it comes to exercise-related marketing from brands or social platforms?

The Nike Run Club app

Nike first released its running app for iPhone in 2010. Since then, it has offered guided runs and workout tracking to users, as well as the ability to connect with friends on the app.

Nike Run Club offers a sense of community to runners, who are most likely alone IRL when they use the app. It invites them into Nike’s brand story and, through this investment, encourages their loyalty. 

The app also uses gamification elements like badges and rewards that promote user engagement, including that positive reinforcement from coaches.

But at the same time that Nike claims to build a community, it’s in users’ ears with messages that reward them for lapping lazy friends, leveraging the same old power of social comparison that has come to plague self-worth in the social media age.

Strava and Snapchat

Infiltrating everyday social feeds, Nike Run Club’s competitor Strava announced a partnership with Snapchat last week.

Stats from the fitness-tracking social app can now be boosted further via Snap’s Strava Activity Lens. It works by connecting directly to Strava profiles so “each time you finish a run, hike, or cycle, your workout will be waiting for you to share on Snapchat,” the duo’s media release reads.  

Is it really a big deal?

Criticising brands and social apps for encouraging workout sharing might sound very “I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy”.

Of course, some people get a lot of healthy benefits out of sharing their fitness journeys.

Posting might keep them accountable to their own goals, for example. And seeing others humble brag about a bike ride probably rolls right off some people’s backs, or even offers them the inspiration they need to improve their health.

Strava appears to be a relatively safe space in which to achieve these things. While there’s competition to get the fastest time on set routes, and plenty of visibility around how much others are exercising, there’s also a positive sense of camaraderie in the interactions.

At the very least, people know what they’re in for when they open Strava. Flowing Strava over to Snapchat is a different story. 

The activity lens subjects family and friends to personal health statistics, giving them another opportunity to compare their bodies with others. Do we really need more of this in 2022? 

That urge to compare is very real and damaging to some people’s self esteem. Numerous studies have linked viewing fitspiration content to poor body image. One 2019 study from Canada’s University of Windsor that found that fitspiration is just as bad as thinspiration for young women’s body satisfaction.

A better mental health approach for marketers

A recent AusPlay survey of 20,000 people found that mental health is a common and growing driver of participation in sport and physical activity.

From the 2020-21 to 2021-22 period, there has been a significant increase in mental health as a participation motive across different genders and age groups in Australia.

Perhaps it’s a trend marketers in this space should pay attention to, not least to implement a bit of corporate social responsibility, but to better motivate audiences to get active, buy their sports apparel or use their apps. 


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