“History,” Matt Damon says, “is filled with almosts.” He’s got a point. He is in a cavernous gallery space, delivering lines that almost make sense, with an affect that almost seems human. On the one hand, he tells us, the annals are haunted by “those who almost adventured, who almost achieved, but ultimately, for them, it proved to be too much.” Yet there are others: “the ones who embrace the moment and commit.”
The language has a ripe flavor that is normally confined to halftime pep talks and voice-overs in History channel documentaries. But we are watching a commercial. As Damon speaks, a camera tracks his progress through a so-called Museum of Bravery. Apparitions appear: a mountain climber summiting an icy peak, an aviator manning a primitive flying machine, astronauts striding down a gangway. “In these moments of truth,” Damon intones, “these men and women — these mere mortals, just like you and me — as they peer over the edge, they calm their minds and steel their nerves with four simple words that have been whispered by the intrepid since the time of the Romans: Fortune favors the brave.”
This is heady stuff. It’s also, clearly, expensive stuff. The C.G.I. effects are top-notch, and the services of a pitchman like Matt Damon don’t come cheap. But what, exactly, is Damon pitching? A self-driving car? Erectile-dysfunction pills? “The Martian 2,” starring Matt Damon? The questions hover, ominously, through nearly all 60 seconds of the commercial’s running time. It’s only in the final shot — as Damon turns his gaze from the camera to stare out a window at what appears to be, yes, Mars — that a logo flashes onscreen and the product on offer is revealed: Crypto.com.
We are used to hard sells from advertisements. But few are as audacious as this one, which suggests that the act of clicking on Crypto.com — an app that can be used to trade Bitcoin and other digital currencies, as well as NFTs — is a feat equivalent to inventing the airplane. The commercial began airing in October, and in recent weeks it went viral online, where it received the response reserved for especially flagrant pieces of (to use the preferred term) cringe. In the press and on social media, commentators mocked Damon’s “zombielike” presence and assailed the ad as “shameless” for implying that glory awaits those bold enough to gamble their savings in a volatile unregulated market.
For many, the ad may simply be baffling. Most people remain fuzzy about what cryptocurrency is and may never have heard of Crypto.com. Launched under the name Monaco in 2016, the Singapore-based company claims to have 10 million users and projects that the number will boom to 100 million by 2023; Kris Marszalek, its chief executive, told The Financial Times in November that the company had seen “20-times revenue growth this year.” In a making-of video released in tandem with the new commercial, Marszalek outlines a messianic vision. “ ‘Fortune favors the brave’ is deeply personal,” he says. “It’s how we live. It’s what we believe in. This decade belongs to crypto.”
The burden of spreading that gospel has been placed on the beefy shoulders of Matt Damon, whom Crypto.com hired as its “brand ambassador” in advance of a $100 million global marketing push. Damon is just the latest A-list star who has taken to hawking crypto. Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen have appeared in commercials for the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, a Crypto.com competitor in which they have an equity stake. On Twitter, Reese Witherspoon is a vocal booster (“Crypto is here to stay”), and Snoop Dogg, an NFT aficionado, offers investing advice (“Buy low … stay high!”).
There is something unseemly, to put it mildly, about the famous and fabulously wealthy urging crypto on their fans. Cryptocurrencies, after all, are in many cases not so much currencies as speculative thingamabobs — digital tokens whose value is predicated largely on the idea that someone will take them off your hands at a higher price than it cost you to acquire them. Entertainers and athletes have ample money to risk in speculative bubbles; their millions of admirers don’t have that luxury and may be left holding the bag when a bubble bursts. Last June, Kim Kardashian promoted the little-known token Ethereum Max on Instagram; after her post went up, the value of Ethereum Max cratered, dropping by 98 percent. (A resulting class-action lawsuit accuses Kardashian and other Ethereum Max promoters of aiding and abetting a “pump-and-dump scam”; her attorney describes the allegation as “without merit” and says they will “defend the action vigorously.”) In a recent article in the online magazine Slate, the actor Ben McKenzie, writing with Jacob Silverman, characterized the shilling of crypto by celebrities as “a moral disaster.”
His words are high-flown — all that stuff about history and bravery — but they amount to a macho taunt.
The cryptocurrency industry’s marketing efforts are focused on young people, especially young men. Surveys have shown that some 40 percent of all American men ages 18 to 29 have invested in, traded or used a form of cryptocurrency. Last year, Crypto.com bought the naming rights to the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings for a reported $700 million; the former Staples Center is now Crypto.com Arena. The company has signed endorsement deals with U.F.C. professional fighting and the glamorous French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain. Crypto.com is going hard after dudes.
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Damon offers a particular kind of appeal to that demographic. His star power is based on brains and brawn; he can recite magniloquent phrases while also giving the impression that he could fillet an enemy, Jason Bourne style, armed with only a Bic pen. In the ad, his words are high-flown — all that stuff about history and bravery — but they amount to a macho taunt: If you’re a real man, you’ll buy crypto.
The bleakness of that pitch is startling. In recent weeks, while watching televised sports — where the Crypto.com spot airs repeatedly, alongside commercials for other crypto platforms and an onslaught of ads for sports-gambling apps — I could not shake the feeling that culture has taken a sinister turn: that we’ve sanctioned an economy in which tech start-ups compete, in broad daylight, to lure the vulnerable with get-rich-quick schemes. Yet what’s most unsettling about the commercial is the pitch it doesn’t make. Traditionally, an advertisement offers an affirmative case for its product, a vision of the fulfillment that will come if you wear those jeans or drive that truck. This ad doesn’t bother. It shows a brief glimpse of a young couple locking eyes in a nightclub — an insinuation, I guess, that crypto has sex appeal. But the ad builds inexorably toward that final shot of Mars, where Matt Damon’s astronaut was marooned in a hit film and where Elon Musk, the world’s second-richest man and a crypto enthusiast, says he plans to build a colony to survive the end of civilization on Earth.
We live in troubled times. The young, in particular, may feel that they are peering over the edge, economically and existentially. This ad’s message for them seems to be that the social compact is ruptured, that the old ideals of security and the good life no longer pertain. What’s left are moonshots, big swings, high-stakes gambles. You might bet a long-shot parlay or take a flier on Dogecoin. Maybe someday you’ll hitch a ride on Elon Musk’s shuttle bus to the Red Planet. The ad holds out the promise of “fortune,” but what it’s really selling is danger, the dark and desperate thrills of precarity itself — because, after all, what else have we got? You could call it truth in advertising.
Source photographs: Theo Wargo/Getty Images; screen grabs from YouTube.